Episode Four: December Countdown
Part ll
Since July 13th 2007
This page was last updated: May 25, 2012
Episode Four of 'Steven's Story' an original story
Melissa J. Vivigatz

~ * ~
“December Countdown”

  I had slept deep as the dead...and awoke in hell.
  How was I going to face him after what had happened? After what he...no, what I had done?
  No, not David. His name is Tyler. Use that.
  Yes, good idea. Friendship had ended with intimacy. No need to beat around the burning bush about it, time to return to reality.
  I am going to go to hell. Well, I knew that already, even before what had happened...happened.
  The look on his face when he thought I was dying...
  No. No more thoughts on the matter. Just get up and walk the routine. Put on your suit, get in the car and go to work.
  Pretend it had not happened? Impossible, yet it could be blocked out.
  Wasn’t the first time my starter drink of the day was something other than coffee, not after the year I’d had. However, it was certainly the...stiffest.
  My god, I told him to stay. What had D...Tyler thought when he had received that message? That I had liked it? That at some point I would want to have him do it again?
  Does not matter what he thinks. Just people who work together now, that’s it. No more friendship and sure as hell not what...what that had been traded away for.
  It had just been a joke I was playing on myself anyway. Midlife crisis foolishness, hanging out with kids half my age. Just another forty-one year old laughing stock. Yup...
  Yes. Yes, I walked right off the deep end there, just another fool grasping at the straws of youth that ended long ago. Man, Sheila must be laughing her ass off at me. Fine, I don’t care. If nothing else, it means someone is laughing somewhere. Not here though.
  I glanced around the room as I finished off my drink. Quiet. A type of silence that even music from the CD player did not cover so I clicked it off.
  Better. As a lawyer there were lies enough in my life. One less was no bad thing.
  I gathered the stack of loaned discs, debated topping the bag off, but that might be misconstrued as a gift, not the simple truth that I just did not want them anymore so I refrained.
  No more delays, Steven. Time to take the ride from one hell to another. Time to leave home for work.
  So be it.

  Well, I got through Day One After just fine. Simply Tyler and Mr. Hanscom. No coffee and tea breaks and this time they were not missed. No long lunch at the pub either. I was done with that as well, no need for the distraction offered by having others around, the numbness within enough.
  I should just go to Connecticut. Not tonight, just wake up early in the morning, start my car and keep on going. After all, it is not like it is far away. Just a few hours till trees and real snow instead of buildings and gray slush ringing overturned garbage cans.
  An idea, yet not just yet. Why the delay? No idea, possibly it was the numbness, the last doubt removed...which should have said “Full speed ahead, Captain!” yet it did not.
  “Routine. I am just walking the routine, keeping to form my plan already set.”
  Fine, whatever.

  Day Two After. Done and done. Another one to check off the calendar. I was getting good at making those black X’s. No more tearing the paper with my pen, just nice, easy lines; one-two, simple and straight. Edges in balance. Calligraphy of the walking dead.

  Day Three...walked into a scene, Baxter’s ‘secretary’ and Tyler having a bit of an argument. That voice which squeaked like chalk on blackboard bringing on a minor pounding behind the eyes even before corner was turned and they were visible.
  Briefcase in hand, eyes and voice dead as the heart, “Problem, Tyler?”
  “No, Mr. Hanscom.”
  “Fine,” and I turned to go to my office.
  “Yes there is,” that grating voice rose behind my back. “Mr. Hanscom, can I talk to you?”
  “I do not know, Miss Simon. Can you?”
  So much for grammar, “What about, Miss Simon?”
  “My name is Sally, Mr. Hanscom. You call all the other secretaries by name,” she flounced her bottle-blond hair in annoyance.
  “Miss Simon, I have a very busy day scheduled ahead of me.”
  “She does not have any work from Mr. Baxter, sir. If it is another official matter she does not tell me.”
  “Because I don’t have to!”
  “I want my coffee,” I sighed and pinched the bridge between my eyes.
  “I’ll get it for you, Mr. Hanscom.”
  “And risk breaking my cup? No thank you, Miss Simon. It is an antique of which I am quite fond. Why don’t you go run off and break someone else’s old thing?”
  “What’s that supposed to mean?”
  “It means that I have a very busy day ahead, so please inform Mr. Tyler your reason for coming here and he will work you into a time slot deemed suitable in my schedule. Good day, Miss Simon.”
  “I could meet you at the pub for lunch?”
  “You are not old enough for such an establishment, Miss Simon.”
  “I’m old enough for a lot more things than you think I am, Mr. Hanscom.”
  “Actually, to be frank, I do not think about you at all. Tyler, coffee. Make it strong.”
  “Yes, sir,” he said to my back and I closed the door to my office.
  It took him about ten minutes, and I did not bother to sit up in my chair. Not even briefcase opened yet, hand to my eyes.
  “Sorry, Mr. Hanscom. I had to wait till she left. She might have touched the computer.”
  “What did the bitch want this time?” I asked as the saucer set was put down.
  “It seemed clear enough, Mr. Hanscom.”
  “Yes. Ah well. Was not planning to go out for lunch anyway. Brought my own and I think I’ll start it now.” I sat up and reached into my suit; brought out a flask and pulled the coffee close. “There’s nothing on the books planned till one today, right?”
  “No, sir.”
  “Great.” Hot, but I sipped enough off anyway to top off. Sipped that. Terrible, I loathed anything contaminating coffee. “Shit. Ah well.”
  Took another sip and grimaced, eyes raising, “Was there anything else, Tyler? Do not let me keep you. I know you have some old cases of Parker’s to read for study.”
  “You will end up like Mr. Parker if you start this early in the morning, Mr. Hanscom.”
  I curled my face up cynically, “You think this is early? Hell, I’m amazed I managed to drive here!”
  “Mr. Hanscom...”
  “No, Mr. Tyler. Just go. I’m...I am not feeling that well today. Might even go home early.”
  “That meeting is very important, Mr. Hanscom. Mr. Levin will be there.” Head of fucking everything. Grandson of the firm’s founder. Mr. Grando Briefcase His’self.
  “I know. I do not care. You’ll just have to go it alone. You can have my office when they fire me. Everything. Desk, couch, the lot.” The couch.
  Oh, god...
  “David,” I said shakily, “for god’s sake...no, for sake of my soul, just go. I can’t... I can not deal with this right now.” The numbness was cracking. Screw the coffee and I took from the flask direct, coughing. I was getting better with the hard stuff, but it still made itself felt when taken direct. Not enough for what I needed, though. No where near it.
  Well, practice makes perfect, and I managed another small one.
  “I am going to lock the door.”
  No! I swiveled the chair around with a jerk of sheer panic, setting my back to him, “Tyler...”
  “Mr. Hanscom, I thought I already explained things?” Click as the latch was turned.
  “You don’t understand...”
  “What don’t I understand?” he asked as he came around...went to his knee before me.
  No, no, no, I can not let this happen again!
  “Tyler, I am not... I am not this way.”
  “I know that, sir,” he said, hands already on my belt. His hands—David’s hands—so close to my aching hard on. “You are just going through a bad time, Mr. Hanscom. Eventually you will get through it, really find someone. When that time comes I will change departments or leave the firm entirely.” (Lifted myself so he could get my pants down a bit.) “Until that time, I am here for you.”
  “Wait,” I said even as a hand wrapped around me. “Tyler, I can’t... I can’t do this to you. Please, don’t make me use you like this!”
  He smiled that boyish smile, lock of sandy blond hair flipping across one blue eye as he looked up at me, “You aren’t using me, Mr. Hanscom. I told you that.”
  “No you didn’t. You just said...said that...”
  “That I cared. That there is someone in this life and world that you call shit who cares about you.” First stoke and I breathed in with it, “I also told you that you do not need to care for me back and I meant it. I guess I’m just one of those who need to be needed.
  “Now just relax, Mr. Hanscom. Let me take care of everything...and you. Because you need me right now.”
  Then it was no more talking as his mouth was placed upon me.
  Oh, Tyler...David, I do care, I whispered inside. Not as much fight; giving into it sooner, one of my hands leaving its tight grip on the chair’s armrest and going to the top of his head, rubbing fingers through his hair as the ministrations continued. No, I do not know what I am...but I am not like you. I like woman, damn you!
  Yet I also care for you, can not see you as a man when you do this...except you are a man and so am I.
  Second hand used as my huffs of breath came faster, the one still on top of his head, (God, I love his hair... Just...just do not bring my hand to my face later to smell in remembrance...) my left reaching down and moving behind his neck, holding, drawing him closer, keeping him there...
  But he was not about to pull away; moaned that same way he had the last time...the first time...and he took me deeper and my left hand gripped back of his neck tightly as my body trembled with the orgasm.
  Same as before and my eyes slid shut, unable to look at him, only this time I was longer playing with his hair...as well as my left hand was now on his shoulder. Just laying there, touching.
  “Thank you,” I breathed when he finally pulled away. “You don’t know...how bad it gets.” Eyes still closed but it felt like there was a handkerchief...then lifting again as bottom of pants were slid up.
  The rest I managed myself. For whatever that was worth.
  “You are welcome, Mr. Hanscom. I will get you a fresh coffee. It is going to be a long day.”
  I nodded.
  Already had the computer up and running as well as cell phone to my ear when he returned. Did not look up and he left.
  Glance later showed he’d also taken my flask, the little bastard.

  December fourth and all hell broke loose. Betty, our head of secretarial, a kitsch loving matron and grandmother of three had taken the morning off to go to a baby shower, and for some reason unfathomable to the rest of us mere mortals, (meaning not the old son of a bitch the gold-digger was screwing,) Sally the Jackass, not even with the firm for ten freaking months, was given The Station to manage.
  Sally Anne Simon, the near illiterate of computers, deleter of more than one crucial file since she had come on the scene was given full access to the firm’s main communications and clerking system. Disastrous combination, an insanity, and those with intelligence prayed she would not be able to figure out how to turn it on. (Or that maybe Betty’s wall of iconned family members surrounding her desk would stare her down, creep the girl out enough to keep her chair turned away, or at least instill a modicum of guilt.)
  God save us, she had, and in one hour’s time created a situation which might destroy the firm.
  Of course this was the one day—the first time ever—that Tyler had not shown up for work. No call, nothing, the intern had simply not shown up!
  Twelve-thirty (no one was going to get lunch today. Or dinner, maybe not even breakfast tomorrow,) and my cell rang, number of my assistant flashing.
  “Tyler,” I snarled into it without letting him speak, “Where the fucking hell are you? You won’t believe what is happening here. They put that plastic titted bimbo on Betty’s main and not only has she fried the firm’s firewalls, somehow she jerked around all our personal emails as well! Everything is scattered; I’ve Parker’s on mine, and by god I pity whomever it was got Baxter’s if these are the sort of pictures—nevermind, only it’s possible that some open case files are now cruising the web and—”
  “Excuse me,” a voice cut me off. Not Tyler’s.
  Oh, shit.
  “Who is this?” My god, had the tart screwed up the number identifiers as well? (At this point nothing seemed impossible.) What had I just let loose? Maybe to a client?!
  “May I ask whom I am speaking to, please?”
  Might as well, and I told the voice my name.
  “I take it you are not related to a Mr. Dave Tyler? Mr....” Pause, then, “A Mr. David Markus Tyler?”
  “Who is this? How did you get Tyler’s cell?”
  “I am sorry, Mr. Hanscom, this is the police.”
  The police, I thought and felt wobble in my legs as time froze; an eternity transpiring from one heartbeat to the next.
  “I am Officer Beckam, and I apologize, but we are trying to contact Mr. Tyler’s family. This number was at the top, so we tried it first.”
  “What happened to David?” I asked softly.
  “I am sorry, Mr. Hanscom, but we really do not like to give these things out. Can you help us here?”
  David had trouble. Was being terrorized—and I had completely forgotten about it till this moment—his assurances that he was ‘cool’, could handle himself...
  Against a weightlifting psychopath who had already cut his face with a knife? Had someone push David down a stairwell so the bastard could kick his ribs black when he landed?
  Smiling, Little David could handle himself on his own against that, Steven?!
  I cleared my voice, gone tight with fear, “I am sorry. He mentioned a father in Vermont one time...” Yes, the son of a bitch who kicked his son out onto the streets at age fourteen! “Officer, I am not related, but I am a friend. A close one. Please, can you tell me what is going on?”
  “You’ll have to do then.” Thanks, asshole! “There was an accident. Hit-an-run at least. The young man is alive, lucky as hell to be actually, but he’s been through it. They have him on a lot of drugs, yet he’s insisting, when awake, to be released.”
  “He’s alive. Thank god.” Yes, thank you, God. Thank you, Jesus and Mary and all the Saints. Thank you, thank you, thank you...
  “Yes, sir. Early Christmas miracle I’d say. That dumpster saved his life.”
  “Excuse me?”
  “Sorry. Like I said, a hit-an-run, yet looks like they really panicked. More banged up than anything, bad concussion, but if they’d left him unconscious in the cold that would have been it.”
  Someone came in yakking and I yelled at them to shut the fuck up and get out!
  Controlled calmness of voice resumed, “Sorry, officer, little busy around the office today. You were saying?”
  “Just that there’s not much more we can do here, Mr. Hanson.”
  “Hanscom,” I corrected unthinkingly.
  “Yeah, sorry.” He was loosing his ‘official’ voice, “No witnesses, and in that area there isn’t likely to be any. Possibly the driver, or maybe a passenger feeling guilty called in a nine-one-oner to check the thing. Not a good neighborhood, so it took the cruiser a while.”
  You mean it took you a while, officer.
  “Again, the kid is lucky. Couple more hours and he would have been on his way to the dump. Not the first time those ones down there have been used for that, so it wasn’t shunted off as a crank call. Anyway, the young man is fine, the doctors cleaned up everything they could to their best, tetanus shot and a slew of other drugs because of the bites and—”
  “Bites? Someone bit him?”
  “He was in a dumpster, Mr. Hanscom. Like I said, possibly the best thing they could have done for him. Warmer than the street.”
  “Rats...” Image too clear: David, in a dumpster, bleeding, unconscious and covered in rats. Being eaten alive on a pile of garbage, and this guy on the other end of the phone said he was lucky.
  Oh, David...
  Voice still droning on the other end, “...helped keep him warm at least. Now, Mr. Hanscom, my partner and I have to leave, but the kid needs a ride or something. He’s really out of it.” Slight echoing effect as the voice went softer, maybe a hand used to muffle, “Sir, possibly the doctors here aren’t letting him go. Bad neighborhood we found him in.”
  I got that picture too. “They’re worried about getting fucking paid?”
  “I didn’t say that, sir. Just, way he was dressed...”
  Voice in the background, older and disgusted, “Come on, Phil, that little bastard is street. You got his pimp on the line.”
  “Fuck off, Ed! Jesus Christ!”
  “Officer... I am sorry, what was your name again?”
  “Beckam, sir. Sorry about my partner, only we see a lot of poor kids down here. Way Mr. Tyler had his stuff on him. No real ID and just a fancy cell...?”
  “Well, Officer Beckam, for your and your partner’s information, Mr. Tyler works in the same law firm I do. As you say, nearing Christmas. Our firm does some Pro Bono work and Mr. Tyler was going around taking photos of project buildings,” I lied through my teeth, not knowing why. “Besides having to dress to fit in, he was mugged a couple of months back. His wallet is probably in his desk.”
  “Ah.” Last doubt vanished. Then, “Mr. Hanscom, think this could have something to do with him getting hit?”
  No, it was that crazy son of a bitch Frank or one of his scum-bag friends, “I can not see how. No true cases have been opened as yet. This was just research. He is only an intern, the buildings were to be random, for comparison. Now that that is out of the way, could you please tell me where he is? I am going out the door now.”
  I got the name. ‘Saint Mercy’s’ my ass.
  “Steven, where the hell are you going?” Parker, hailing me down.
  “David was hit by a car.”
  “Jesus H!”
  “There’s a problem at the hospital. Quince, I have to go.”
  “Go. That kid’s one in a million. I’ll cover you.”
  “Thanks. Just watch out for yourself. Look on verge of having a heart attack.”
  “I am,” he said shakily.
  “Don’t worry,” I said. “I got yours on mine.”
  “Thank Christ!”
  “One thing, they are eighteen, right?” Man, after today the whole building was going to be ripe for blackmail.
  “Yeah. Only they think I’m twenty. I love that fucking Photoshop!”
  “Groovy,” I said and the elevator doors slid shut.

  Needed the dash guidance for this one. Bad part of the city. Not the worse, but bad.
  Probably record time and I pulled up near the Emergency, not even thinking of my car when a gorilla in surplus army getup hailed me from the street corner.
  “Hey, dude! Watch yer wheels fer a’ twenty!”
  “Make it a fifty.”
  “Dude, fer that I’ll make sure I don’t watch ‘em drive away!
  “Pay you when I get back.” He winked and touched his nose, then I was inside.
  Who didn’t hate hospitals? But this was awful, the standard wailing babies and yelling, people sitting about waiting their turn, some holding parts of themselves together with red-stained rags while chemicals and sickness fought the air for dominancy.
  Cracked plastic chair in a corner, only able to recognize the slumped figure wrapped in a cheap wool blanket with arms around a paper bag by tuft of his hair. Sticking up, it looked like they had scrubbed the tar off of him.
  No, it was garbage and rat shit...
  “David.” At my touch he came up swinging with a bandaged hand. “Whoa!” I said even as he slumped back down in my arms, legs giving way. “Easy, kid. I’ve got you.”
  “Yeah, that’s me.”
  “Shut up and just sit here for five minutes. I’ll settle up with the bloodsuckers.”
  Oh yeah, quick service when you pulled out the plastic...but they weren’t really bad. Just worn to tears people trying to do their best with what they had. Nurses leaning against random objects with swollen ankles looking bad off as some of the patients.
  No, I could not give them any more information than they had. David was drugged to his eyelids, had been in and out when brought in. They weren’t getting anything more from him.
  “Come on, David, time for me to take care of you.”
  “Yup. Fine and dandy.” No wheelchairs to spare, (yet he did have ‘fresh’ clothing. Donations by the look of it. I guess his others had been sent to an incinerator.) so it was a hook of his arm over shoulder and me more dragging him than anything else out the doors.
  The car was there, Mr. Army with a fresh cut on his bean, grinning with spaces showing where teeth should be.
  “All set fer ya, dude,” he said as I clicked the beeper and the passenger door opened.
  “Here,” I said, handing him a fifty, his eyes going large.
  “Dude, you was serious?”
  “Yup. And here’s your twenty as well. Go get your head fixed.”
  “Hell, ain’t nothin’. Little knock, that’s all. But thanks, we done agreed on the price.” He tried to hand me back the Jackson.
  “Buddy, do I look like I’m going to miss it?” I said over my shoulder as I got David straightened up again, adjusted the seatbelts, then tilted things back a bit so he was laying more than sitting.
  “Well I fer sure would. Thanks, Mr. Dude. I’m Brick. Sarge Brick. Ya ever needs me, that’s m’ corner there,” he waved at an alley.
  “Groovy,” I said and got the gap-grin again as I went around to the driver’s side.
  “Hey, yer alright, Mr. Dude.”
  “I wish. Be seeing you.”
  “Aye, Mr. Dude sir!” He snapped to attention and gave me a salute, holding it till I was around the corner.
  “David, are you all right?” Amazing the things we ask people sometimes. Plaster patches everywhere, he looked like he’d been through a war.
  “Shut up. You’re coming home with me.”
  “Yes, and no bitching about it. Time for me to start taking care of business, kid, and that business is you. You’re my friend, David, and it is time I started treating you like it.”
  No answer, he was out.
  I had no idea where he lived, nor did I give it a thought. Like I said, it was time to start balancing the ledger, and I was too deep in the red.
  Yes, he’d been through the ringer alright, and combination of things had him nightmare, make helpless sounds as bandaged hands twitched in his sleep, futile attempts to brush things off as he strained against the holding seatbelt.
  “It’s alright, kid. David, I am here,” I said and reached to take his closest hand briefly. Only a few fingers wrapped on that one, so he must have felt some of it before he sighed and drifted off again. No, it wasn’t a queer thing, just a friend letting the other know he wasn’t alone in a world made of garbage.
  And rats.
  Only... Oh, David, I do not think I have ever been this mad before in my life. Not this boiling darkness so deep inside it is keeping me cold-calm on the out. Never wished so hard before that I had someone pinned in the headlights of the beamer like this, my foot ready to floor the engine. I’m not a violent man, if I had been, maybe I could have proved to Shell... But I just let that bastard slide out of my wife and our bed, grab his pants and leave.
  Then I stood there watching Sheila pack and follow him. What a pathetic wimp.
  Yet I’m no longer the person I was back then. Not totally. So swear to god, Davey, one way or the other this shit is going to end. You don’t want people looking into your past too deeply, that’s fine. I can get a permit to carry, or at least get my hands on something, somewhere. Got the cash to flash, and in this world that’s all that’s necessary for stuff like this. So just leave it to me, kid. I’m not the least bit afraid, not of getting hurt or getting killed. No, I got that one well covered.
  Yeah, only one thing I am afraid of, my young friend and that is you. Sorry, David, I had my shot at life and I blew it. That’s done; over; finis. Christmas is my time to burn out, just ticking off the days, the hours, in countdown.
  So don’t get any ideas in your head, kid...no, other way around, thing I need to tell myself. You’re not going to be the one to fill this hole inside of me, David, this emptiness that I call life.
  But I’ll take care of you all the same, kid. Paperwork is all done, everything to you. And even if I don’t get my peaceful walk into the snow that’s fine as well. Never shot a gun in my fucking life, but all I have to do is walk up and squeeze, right? Right. Nothing hard there. Know where to go, too. The hole-in-the-wall jazz club where things are tight. Used to be your favorite hangout till that bastard took it over. Not because he likes it, thinks jazz music is shit; no, the crazy fucker only hangs there so you no longer can.
  Hey, that’s going to be cool beans, David. Not only do you get the apartment, a house in the country, pipe collection, more money than you can imagine, the beamer and my job, you’re going to get your favorite hang out place back as well! No, going to get your life back. Now that is what I call a fucking good deal, kid. No need to thank me though, no way, this is my thanks to you.
  One in a million? Try a billion. Yup, that was David, all right. Oh, yeah, this was going to be cool beans and groovy all the way, baby!
  Not to mention the grandest bird-flip ever to Sheila.

  Reserved spot right near the elevator, and being the taller, I imagine I had an easier time of getting him into the electric anti-stairs box than he had of me that time.
  A touch more aware then he had been, the sleep during the drive helping somewhat, “Just a little further, kid. Almost to my floor.” I had received the run down (no pun intended, though it had my teeth grind) at the hospital of his injuries. Lucky was right, for beyond one hell of a head knock, he’d had a dislocated shoulder, (now back in place,) left side from hip down was a single bruise, some cuts and scrapes (the cuts having to do with some glass in the dumpster more than ‘accident’ except for the one on his noggin,) and little more than that.
  Gnawed fingers and couple like spots on his side were going to have to be watched closely.
  Damn, for lack of a dozen pit-bulls right now...
  I managed to get him to the couch where he collapsed, rolled paper bag still in his clutches, “You all right here for a couple of minutes? I need to get a few boxes off of the bed in the guestroom. Want some tea or anything?” He sort of moved his head in what I took as a shake of ‘no’, so I left to get the side place ready. I’d once said that the apartment was large enough for a couple of families and I’d meant it. (I had had hopes of children once. Sheila didn’t want any...at least not with me. I wonder how far along she is now?) True, only the main monster kitchen which could serve a restaurant, (no more hotplate gourmet for you, kid,) yet his little suite came with own bath and closets and even a small sitting room overlooking the city complete with table that could be used as a desk. From right angle you even managed to glimpse a bit of the park.
  Not one of Shells’ places, had more antiques from my Aunt Lillian’s collection here, some family heirlooms which had been in storage, mirrored dresser, side table, chair and the like. He’d be fine.
  The boxes took a couple of trips. Even in this day and age some things had to be kept on paper. I had been going through a lot of stuff, most of this was for the shredder. Only kept it this long in case I had come across something forgotten. I hadn’t, I was good and had had the time. Could not remember the last time I had slept the night through.
  Other things had belonged to Sheila, some clothes deemed not fancy enough to keep, only I did do myself the favor of not keeping them hanging in her room-length, walk-in. Bedroom in itself, that place. Maybe David’s friend Kimberly would want them, or her friend Casey. Too bad the rags would cause more trouble than they were worth if I donated them to the hospital. From the three-times too big sweatshirt and pants they’d given the kid, sending patient out wearing these babies would only be setting them up as targets and a round trip back to Emergency.
  Or a dumpster nap.
  Breathe, Steven, just breathe. Give it a couple of days till the kid can take care of himself again.
  I finished and returned to the living room. Somehow the kid had managed to sit upright...but he was slumped forwards. I think he was holding something in his hands.
  “You all right, kid?” Movement of head and his shoulders started to shake.
  I came around side...awe, shit. His pipe had not survived the ‘accident’, was laying in two pieces in his hands.
  “Everything,” I heard him whisper. “Take everything...even this...”
  “Kid...” Damn it, Steven, that is as bad as calling him Tyler! Stop putting up walls and get a hold of yourself! “David, it is okay.”
  “No it’s not!”
  “Yes, it is,” I said firmly. “It is just the stem. There are guys out there who repair these things all the time.”
  “Yup. Not lying to you, David. It might take a couple of weeks, busy time of year and all that, but we can email some people later. Doubt there is anyone in the city, but it is easy enough to mail it. Don’t worry, though I know how you feel. Dropped one in a parking lot once and it was a lot worse, actually cracked the wood. Guy had to do a little redesigning, added a length of ebony wood to it, but smokes just fine. Would send this one to him, Colorado if I remember right, but he’s retired.”
  “I liked this just the way it was.”
  “So we’ll find someone good. It’s just the stem, David.”
  “Okay,” he whispered.
  “Okay. So, bed or do you want anything else?”
  “Don’t you have to get back to work?”
  “Nah, Parker said he would cover. It’s one of the slow ones, not much happening there.” Yes, he was out of it. Parker’s and my own work did not overlap, yet he did not catch the slip.
  “My mouth tastes funny. Is there any tea? Or I mean coffee or anything?”
  “For crying out loud, David, I didn’t throw anything out. Give me a break.”
  “For Christ’s...ah never mind. All right, tea it is. That honey ginseng mint stuff? I plan to make some lunch for myself as well. Not spaghetti, for your information. I can smash eggs with the best. Shells are full of calcium, right?”
  He started shaking, single laugh then total breakdown, so I sat down on the couch with my arm over careful.
  “It’s all right, kid. I’m here,” I patted softly while he soaked my shirt. Relaxed briefly and put my face touching the top of his head, offering further comfort. Not his smell though, sharp and astringent and I sneezed.
  “Christ, what’s the brand name on their shampoo? Battery Acid?”
  “It felt like it,” he sniffled.
  “Bye-bye kudies, at least.”
  “Yup,” he replied softly. “S-sorry about your shirt.”
  “Hmm? Oh. Don’t worry about it,” I said as he moved and I helped him sit upright again where he flopped his head down.
  “David my boy, from the looks of things I believe you have just uttered the understatement of the freaking year. They gave me a wad of papers, prescriptions and stuff when the tokens in my pocket are done. Sorry, but,” checked my watch, “at least another two hours before you can have more heavies. In meantime I’ve got aspirin enough for an army. They said you can have that.”
  “I’m okay.”
  “Alright. I’ll leave an open bottle on the nightstand before I head out and get these things filled. Now, nothing against the good people at the M.A.S.H. unit we just left, but if you don’t mind I’d like to bring you over to Doc Samlin later or tomorrow.”
  “Because I’d feel better, that’s why.”
  Well that was a first. He must really be feeling it. “Okay then. Time for that tea and something to eat. I’ll make the call as well.”
  An old hand at heating water, I had the tea on and cell to my ear as I mangled some eggs and dropped cheese chunks and some wilted spices into them. The fridge was a little bare, I had slipped back into cardboard tasting takeout routine. Of course I had to leave a message, wasn’t like the old codger was sitting at his desk, but I had a certain feeling he would get back soon.
  Forget the dinning table, this was couch time and I deposited the omelet on his lap, and after second look left again. If there was anyone looking ‘down in the dumps’ it was David.
  Lets see now... Like I’d said, this year was different, things needing to be done early, so several weeks back I had done some internet shopping; then got the packages and tossed them unopened in the closet after everything had gone south. And hey, hey, nothing had arrived broken, so I spent the next couple of minutes getting my fingernails gooey with scrapping price tags off cellophane before gathering up the long boxes and heading back.
  Returning, David just sort of sitting there, “So who do you want to be? Frodo or Gandalf?”
  I placed the boxes on the coffee table, “Remember when the gang was here for the Lord of the Rings marathon? Well, figuring there were three pipesters amongst us, albeit Miss Casey likes her Long-bottom leaf on the green side, I went surfing and came across this place that made reproductions. Real smokers, not props. Uses ash wood on some of them.”
  “Those are...cool,” he smiled and winced.
  “Hey, David, you okay?”
  “My head hurts. Sorry,” he spoke in a small voice.
  “No sorrys. It’s hard to tell, but it looks like your face is swelling.” Looked, hell, his eye on that side was starting to get pushed close. If it kept up he’d been looking out of a slit.
  “I don’t think I can eat right now. Sorry.”
  “David, you were hit by a fucking car. The only one who is going to be sorry about it is the bastard who did it.”
  “What...do you mean? Karma?”
  “Yeah, a ton’s worth of car-beamer.”
  My cell buzzed and I went to the kitchen where I’d left it.
  Gruff old voice: “You the man with an extra Peterson Anniversary?”
  “Well hello to you too, Doc. And maybe I am and maybe I’m not.”
  “Don’t lawyer doubletalk me, son.”
  “Alright then here is the deal. Friend of mine was in a hit an run this morning. They brought him to Saint Mercy’s.”
  “Exactly. I’ve got him here now and he doesn’t look so good. They prescribed a lot of stuff, but I’d like a second opinion.” I described brief as possible what I had been told.
  “Why didn’t they keep him there for observation?”
  “Looked like a matter of too busy and no room, and frankly, after seeing the place I am glad. Reason the cops brought him there is because he was dressed to fit the area to keep from being mugged. Had that happen a couple months ago. Reason he is living down there no matter he works at the firm is a mix of bad luck and student loans. I learned about it and am taking care of that. Talk about a stubborn little cuss.”
  “Some lawyer you are.”
  “Yeah, I get that a lot. Look, Doc, he’s putting on a good front but I can tell he’s in agony. His face is swelling up and he can’t eat.”
  “Have the case number there?” I read the strip from the paperwork. “All right, I’ll start the faxes flying back and forth. Places like that do their best, but as you saw it gets kind of cramped, and situation you described they might not have done a full run of x-rays. Could be a fracture in the cheekbone, cracked tooth, all sort of things. Bring the kid and my new pipe down this way and ask for me. I’ll let them know you’re coming, but for god’s sake and my job keep the Pete under cover!”
  “Will do, Doc. See you in a bit.” He grunted and I hung up.
  “Ouch,” I said when I saw David, face worse than ever. “Guess it’s back to the hospital.”
  “I’m okay.”
  “No, you are not. Doc Samlin said it could be cracked teeth or something.” Please, God, only that. They hit his head hard.

  No sleeping during the drive this time, whole way made in silence, David clearly trying not to move much and I cursed the car because the suspension was proving not to be the ‘smooth as glass’ ride always crowed it had been. Not when every little bump had us both wincing. Lots of swelling of his face now and the moment I was pulled up directly before the steel and glass sliding doors it was calling for Samlin as I stole a chair and did my best not to make things worse; keeping my swear contained as the foot-pedal thing pinched my finger, the bruised leg hurting him as much as his head. My head starting to ache because everyone was going around calm as you please instead of dashing him off to surgery, or better, getting their lazy-assed surgeons down here now.
  Relax because my ‘nephew’ would be fine? Lady, give me a fucking break!
  Instead I got some aspirin, a cup of the vilest crap that people should burn in hell for calling coffee, ‘fresh’ from a vending machine and a pat on the back from a clipboard wielding Doc ‘Ouch’ Samlin who tucked his wrapped bribe in capacious pocket and told me to go for a long walk. Understood why I was pissed though, any decent person would be after hearing what had happened to the kid, so don’t worry, the boy was in good hands now and everything would be seen to.
  Had to admit, they took good care of him. Full x-rays, tests and with any luck he slept through all of them. While all that was being done I took my walks, (checking back now and then) went down to the gift shop, you know, candy and flowers for people who were visiting patience but there were no souvenir type things wanted from this place. Just trying to keep busy because I hated hospitals; was having a very hard time managing my anger, the stuff bubbling up past the coldness just by being in this place. Still, somehow, I managed.
  I had brought some of my own clothes along, and everything finished, a nurse was helping David get changed in the small room while we awaited the doctor’s coming.
  Leaning against the wall outside, glaring at the ‘No Smoking’ sign and accompanying ‘warning’ scare tactic, horror movie posters when the old doctor came down the hall.
  Not smiling (thing which had my guts drop) he did not say go into the room, but follow him into a small corner a short distance away.
  “Mr. Hanscom, what the hell happened to this kid?”
  “Excuse me?” I had already told him everything I knew.
  “No, I mean before this.”
  “I do not know what you mean?”
  “Huh. Well, guess it is doctor patient privileges, only I have to say from the look of things he was damn lucky this time. No,” he scowled, “what I would really love to say is everything else was from a previous car accident, but I know better. Sorry, son, these cases really burn me up inside.”
  “If I knew what you were talking about...?”
  A glance at me which I didn’t get, then a shrug and grunted, “Sorry. The boy is fine. A loose tooth that will need watching, yet I opinion it will be fine soon enough once the gum tissue stabilizes. Called the cheek right though, tiny hairline just under the knife scar, nothing but a small annoyance. Little trooper like that I am surprised he even noticed it. Mr. Hanscom, I don’t mean to pry, but you have any information on his home life? Childhood stuff?”
  “No, only that he left home too young.”
  “Not young enough, the poor kid. Can tell that sort of thing from looks of the scar tissue. God damn it, I hate this stuff, statute of limitations more than anything. That’s what you lawyers should do away with, you know. Someone does wrong they shouldn’t get a free ride when the victim is old enough to stand up to them. Or grown tall enough to look them in the eye and maybe get a blow in themselves.”
  “That’s David’s goal in becoming a lawyer, Doctor Samlin. He says there are too many people out there with no defense. And no one who cares.”
  “Sure seems it at times.”
  “David is one in a million.”
  “He lived, that’s for certain. And from little we spoke together, again, amazing he’s even aware with the stuff those others pumped him with, I would say to be a fine young man.”
  “He’s a good person, Doc. And so are you.”
  “Thanks, son. Everyone has to do their best, that’s all we ever can. Beyond that, I would say you can see him home now. New prescriptions, which you can have filled downstairs. All kinds of dealers in this world, son. Some of them too stupid to know better. Not on that note, how are you doing these days?”
  “A little better.” For now. Couple more weeks and I would be cured completely. Of everything.
  “Told you.”
  “That you did, Doc.”
  “Well, time for the boy.”

  Looking even paler than he had with the new bandages, David still seemed a lot better then when I last saw him, face almost back to normal, but dark circles under his eyes from exhaustion. It had been a long day, and before leaving the pretty nurse helped him sit upright on the bed before touching his head gently and giving him a smile.
  She spoke a few quiet words with the Doc who simply nodded, then left.
  “She’s really nice,” David managed, looking a lost waif in the still too big clothing.
  “That she is, lad. Don’t get any ideas though. An’ that goes for you as well, Mr. Hanscom. The girl’s fiancée could snap you in half, racquetball player or not.”
  “Hey, did I say anything?”
  “No, I’m just cutting off the usual questions I get about her before they start.”
  Some brief discussion between him and David then, apparently they had already talk earlier during the tests; this was just the usual, finishing up ‘dos and don’ts’ and for how long he’d be under their onuses.
  “Now then, I can tell you’ll be in good hands, lad, got yourself a good friend here.”
  “I know,” he said, though despite his tone, all I felt like was shit.
  “Uh-huh. Part of the reason I’m saying this is because I want you to listen to him. You are really going to be feeling all this later, still got yourself a case of shock. The pain killers I’m giving you prescription for are mild, just give them a chance to kick in, no doubling up or anything. They will do the trick, trust me. Beyond that, the antibiotics are going to keep you sleepy, might even get your stomach a touch, but you stay on them till the course is run, got that?”
  “He will,” I said.
  “I can take care of myself. Owe...”
  “None of that, lad, no shame letting someone help you now and then. Beyond that you are all set and are going to be fine.” Some scribbling done on his pad, sheet torn off and I took it.
  Ah, what the hell. “Hey, Doc,” I said and we turned around to speak quieter in a corner with heads together, “Things are a little better, yet with the kid there I don’t exactly want to be running around the apartment, know what I mean? Seeing as you have your pad all fired up there...?”
  “Not a problem, Mr. Hanscom. Actually can do you one better.” Tried to smile when he pulled a plastic bottle of chemical castration out of his coat and handed it over to me. “Truth is when I received your message I thought this was the reason you were calling. Figured you probably wouldn’t want to stand around the dispensary while they made them up.”
  “Thanks.” I shook the thing, “Not that many in there.”
  “Mild as well. All your body needs is a little break, son, I promise you.”
  “Fine,” I said as I tucked them into my pocket.
  “One more thing. A little nightingale told me about the caseload of aspirins you picked up. You notice things getting worse with your head once you start taking those stop immediately and come see me for those tests, got it?”
  “Will do, though they are just from stress. Have had them for years.”
  “And this year was a hard one on you or else I would have more concern.”
  “One sec, kid. So, we all set here, Doc?” I asked as we pulled apart.
  “All set.”
  “Groovy,” I nodded and turned back to David. “Well, kid, let’s blow this pop stand—”
  My cell buzzed.
  “Better you than me,” Doc said with a wry grunt.
  “Oh, no,” I swore when I saw the identifier of the caller. What to do, take it now or... “Hello, Mr. Baxter.” Out of corner of my eye I saw David put hand over his face.
  “Where the fuck are you?”
  “There was a medical emergency, Mr.—”
  “Fuck that! You’re going to need one when I get through with you!”
  “Me? What did I do?” I asked in surprise.
  “Not a fuckin’ thing! Everyone is supposed to be here, Hanscom! Everyone!”
  “Why is that, Mr. Baxter? It was your mistake after all.”
  I nodded, no matter I was on the phone; the anger rising, making me crazy enough to speak the truth and screw the consequences, “Of course it was. The girl has no experience, let alone the education to go anywhere near that terminal. Her record is the worst on record and that is saying a lot for an employee who has not been with the firm for even a year.” I pulled the phone down and pressed it to my shoulder, even that muffling not stopping all the sounds of his screaming from coming through as I turned briefly to David, “The asshole put Sally on Betty’s station.”
  “Oh. My. God.”
  “Believe you me, David, there are a lot of people who would trade your day for theirs today.”
  I counted to slow ten and lifted the phone, knowing enough not to put it anywhere next to my ear.
  “—Do you hear me?!” came the howl.
  “Yes, I can hear you now,” I said deadpan and David made choking sounds of laughter behind his hands and I winked. “Perhaps you did not hear me, Mr. Baxter. I told you there was a medical emergency.” I had the timing down so pulled it away to avoid loosing an eardrum.
  “I don’t care about that! You can fuckin’ die here with the rest of us!”
  “Whoa,” Doc mouthed.
  “Sorry, Mr. Baxter, I have far more important things to do today than clean up after your barely legal desk muffin.” This response was more restrained, no need to pull things away. “Fired did you say, Mr. Baxter? Under what grounds, please? Mm-hmm,” I nodded. “Oh? Well, if you must. Only, I have a question for you, Mr. Baxter, and that is: How old are they?”
  I knew it! Thank you, Parker. No, I had no idea where Baxter’s private emails had wound up, or what they contained, but what the hell, right? Clearly from that silence it was a large issue on the old bastard’s mind as well.
  “Hello? Are you still there, Mr. Baxter?”
  “Yes? I am here, Mr. Baxter.”
  “It’s...they are not...not what you think.”
  “Mm-hmm,” I went without giving away anything.
  “How much do you want, you son of a whore?”
  “Mr. Baxter, you offend my integrity. More then offend, in fact, you just make me sick,” I said with feeling.
  “It’s research, god damn you!”
  “Research? Oh come on, is that the best defense you can come up with?” I quickly covered the phone and glanced at both David and the Doc, lifted my shoulder in an ‘I don’t know either’ shrug and David needed two hands across his mouth to hold it in no matter he was wince and ‘ouching’.
  Phone back to my ear, I just caught the tail of the whisper, “...age?”
  “I am sorry, I did not catch that?”
  Clearly trying to keep it down, “Just... Just asked their age? Why?”
  Holy shit. the Beast was into boys? Little boys?
  I could be wrong though, so again gave him nothing—while at same time answering whatever question was in his twisting mind, “Like I said, you make me sick.”
  “How much?” he wheezed again. With luck, the sick fuck would end up in the hospital, or better, under the ground where he belonged.
  “Well, since I believe it is now clear that my job is safe and exactly how I feel, seeing as little of your ugly face as possible will work just fine. Same goes for my staff. You see any of us at the firm you are to keep your fucking, mouth, shut. Cordiality would be asking too much, as is it sounds like you are the one having an aneurism.”
  My voice went tense and cold, anger flaring sharp, “So do you have that, asshole? Leave me and my people alone and I’ll do the same: keep my mouth shut.
  “Now then,” calmness regained, “I do realize there is a situation there. I will come in tonight and give someone else a break. I imagine it is going to be ‘round the clock’ for a few days?”
  “Yes. Again, Baxter, that is all your fault alone and you had best remember that. It does not help you or anyone else to scream at people trying to clean up your mess. My advice is to find a deep hole and crawl in head first with your thumb plugging your ass because everyone has too much to deal with right now as is without you drenching them in more shit.”
  “You can’t...can’t speak to me like that.”
  “Actually, I just did speak to you like that. What do you say, Baxter old boy? Is it my job or a prison cell?”
  “Like I said, I’ll be in tonight. Bye.”
  “What happened?” David asked. Lawyers with a witness so I kept the matter simple, saying that email files had traveled a little out of place.
  “Son, I am just dying to know?”
  “You got me, Doc. I made all that crap up. I’ve got no idea where his are—or what they may contain. Yet knowing him, I can imagine.”
  “Stay here, I am going to schedule a cat scan.”
  “Ha, ha, very funny.”
  “Nothing would surprise me,” David said. “He is a monster.”
  “But not ours anymore. Hey, maybe we should make a pool? See who drives to work in a new Ferrari tomorrow?”
  “Or goes out a window.”
  “Which may have happened a couple of times since I left work without his help.”
  “You told me it was a boring day and nothing was happening!” he accused—then winced, hand to his face.
  “I lied. Sue me.”
  “Son, if I ever need a lawyer I know who to call.”
  “Keep this under patient-doctor confidentiality privileges and you’ve got a deal.”
  “Will do.”
  “All right, David, lets bid this proud new Peterson owner a good day and get you home to bed. Doc, thanks again. Be careful with the Stockton though, bowl that size and you’ll be gripping carpet.”
  “Could nic-hit you under the table anytime, kid.”
  “No thanks, I’ve headaches enough.”
  “Mr. Hanscom?” he asked as I helped David into the wheelchair. Some policy, you had to leave the hospital in a chair. Like they were afraid of getting sued if you keeled over after being treated. Though in this case I was glad for it.
  “For the last time, Doc, it is just the usual stresses, I promise. Hell, that was just one of my bosses you heard on the phone.”
  “All right. Still, like I said, keep me posted. Sounds like you’ve some bad days ahead. Offer still stands for that doctor’s note.”
  I nodded and we were out the door, plastic pulled out at the desk, the dispensary, then out into the cold.
  “Hang on, let me get in,” I said and closed his door to hurry around to my side. I hated winter in the city.
  In and turn of key to get the heater blowing, “Okay, shoot me.”
  “Are you sick?”
  “Told you no.”
  “But Doctor Samlin? The way he was talking?”
  “I am fine, David. Go to sleep,” I said with gritted teeth.
  Okay. Yes, I am fine when you do not look at me like that, David. Sick when you do. Messed up and fucked up, but it’s my problem to deal with, not yours.
  Popped the first of the little pills as soon as he drifted off.

  Home again, all but carrying him since the kid was clearly wiped out and tucked him in. Still dressed, he could manage that later when he woke up, bandaged hands or not. No, I was not hot for his body or anything, thank god, only there were limits.
  Hung around the place for a little while in case he woke up. He didn’t, dead to the world and looking to be sleeping easy, so it was back out to do some shopping. Quick dash for some basic groceries and clothes. I guessed on sizes, (shirts in medium rarely failed) got a couple pairs of pants in varying sizes enough to hold over till his own could be fetched. Whatever didn’t fit could be donated somewhere. That thought had me think of work and Betty’s Charity Box so I grabbed a couple things at random, having a feeling that ‘good will’ might be a little scant this year around the office.
  One last item, a plant for David’s room. I don’t know what it was but it was green and had leaves so it worked for me. He’d complained, no, mentioned more than once that I should have something alive in the place and knowing he liked plants it would give him something to take care of. I was off that list for good.
  Still sleeping when I got back, but not peacefully, so I sat there and said his name a couple of times and it seemed to help. Then it was into his bathroom and drop off of the basics like shampoo and shaving gear.
  Plant (placed on a plate) on the night table, some water and opened prescription bottles in easy reach then it was to the living room and stretch out on the couch, arm over my eyes to get some sleep myself. I had the feeling it was going to be one hell of a night.

  I rolled over in my sleep, smiling despite the crink in my neck. Something... No, a couple of something’s, noted.
  One was sound...music. Volume kept low, one of the things I dubbed ‘ethnic’; piano and flute with touch of guitar. I liked it.
  The other thing was smell: food, something cooking. That was a start. When had Shell learned to cook? Deeper breath as I rolled back over, it did not smell like one of her catered things. No contamination of the air with mix of expensive perfumes and colognes, no babble of voices drowning out classical music.
  Shell, are you back? Really back? You, the girl I married and—
  Sound, soft clunking and a quiet uttered “Ouch,” accompanied by another smell: coffee.
  “Hmm?” I shifted, wince and brought hand to back of my neck even as eye cracked open.
  I sat up with groan muffled behind my teeth, “David, what... Crap, what are you doing up?” Bringing me a coffee, of course, trying his damnedest not to spill it as he maneuvered about with help of a cane from the hospital. Not the first run the kid had made either, the saucer already on the table. “For crying out loud, I was here in case you needed anything.”
  “I’m fine. I made some soup before I left.”
  “What?” I took the cup by its side and quickly put it on the saucer because it was hot. “Don’t be crazy. You are not going to work.”
  “No, home. I just wanted to thank you for what you did today.”
  “Then sit down before you fall and crack the other side of your head open and I have to drive you back to the hospital for a third round. Better yet, go back to bed and I’ll bring in some soup. Jesus, I can’t believe you could get up let alone move around the kitchen!”
  “I’m used to doing for myself. It’s cool.”
  “No, you have a cracked noggin full of drugs making you stupid. Kid, you are home.” He tried to shake his head and winced. “David, I mean it. Those are your rooms and you’ve the run of the place, or at least the hobble. Look, give me a couple hours when I get back tomorrow morning to crash then I’ll go get your stuff.”
  “You can’t. I can’t.”
  “Why not? Look, if you think there is going to be any funny business or that other don’t worry. You were right, I was screwed up for a while but that is over.”
  “Steven, I wasn’t thinking like that! Not anything like that!”
  “Well I have been.” Shit, pale as a sheet he was going to fall so I got up and made him sit down, or more like aimed him at the chair for a semi-controlled landing.
  “David, I am completely serious. You are going to stay here.”
  “Why not? Kid, look at this place. It is huge, I am hardly ever here and it is world’s safer than where you are now.”
  “I know, it’s just well...people might talk.”
  “Fuck them. Haven’t you ever watched the Odd Couple?”
  “Great. Well, it was this old show where a couple of divorced guys batched together. Nothing alike, one was a tight assed sissy named Felix and the other a fat slob called Oscar. I’ll be the old grouch drinking beer on the couch and you can be the dude that waters the plants. Code names Oscar and Felix. It’ll be a blast, especially because we are both smokers in this remake.”
  “I just don’t want to cause trouble.”
  “No trouble to cause, kid. And if for some reason only know to god you feel guilty, don’t. I am going to need a house sitter in a couple of weeks anyways.”
  I waved my hand, “David, relax. I spent a very piss-poor Christmas here last year and am going to make up for it with this one. Been telling you for a couple month how much I miss the old house and that is where I am going.”
  “You told me more than that.”
  “Just blowing smoke-rings, kid. Trust me,” I smiled easily.
  “I don’t believe you.”
  Insightful little bastard, I snorted as I picked up my coffee, “That’s your problem, not mine.” Sip. “Damn, how do you do it? I use the same beans, but you make the best coffee ever—and you don’t even drink it!” He just looked at me. “So, are you going to be fine here when I leave for work? That is if there is a firm left and the sidewalk hasn’t been painted thick with lawyers. Hey, there’s a question for you. Someone slips on the mess, who are they going to sue?” No smile. Crap. “Anyway, I didn’t think of it before, but you might want to give Kimberly a call, let her know what happened. Have her over, you kids can have a slumber party or something.”
  “I’ll be fine.”
  “I would feel better if you did. So will you, because if I come home and you’ve pulled one of those ‘fallen and can’t get up’ moves you will really have something to feel sorry about!” He smiled that time and tried to duck his head, ended up with a small, “Owe.” as well as an, “Ouch.”
  “Alright, Felix, that’s it. Dinner here or in bed? Only...crap I don’t think I have one of those tray things.”
  “I can sit at the table. I didn’t set it yet though.”
  “Well, so much for Oscar,” I said as I got up. “Though if you are expecting napkins folded like flowers you’ve another thing coming.”

  My god, what a night... Driving home at seven a.m. instead of the other way around and I could barely see the road from the sidewalks. Managed though, and only tired voice whispering insistently that I had to check on things gave me the nudge needed to not just tilt the seat back and sleep here in the car.
  Leaned against the wall of the elevator the whole way up, sans briefcase...no, wait, I hadn’t bothered to bring it to work I recalled so there was no reason to go back down to the garage.
  As said, usually folks of my lot were up and on the way, so walking into the apartment, only one eye open I was greeted a few moments later by David.
  “Survived World War Sally day one,” I mumbled as I fell onto the couch. The bedroom was just too fucking far away. “Firm’s still there. No case files on the net. Nope, that is sealed right down an’ nobody, including us is gettin’ in anytime soon. System went into full lockdown when it thought it was being tampered with—which it was. Got to be back by...” Squinted through one eye at my watch. “Shit, doesn’t matter. Back by ten or somethin’. This morning.”
  “But it’s after eight and it takes an hour to get there!”
  “Yup. Better set the...where the fuck is the alarm?” I asked, not seeing it on the nightstand. Oh, wait, I was in the living room...or was it the office couch?
  No, at the apartment. Phone call might have woken him up. Kid needs his sleep.
  Oh man, was I wiped. I needed to sleep...
  “Why didn’t you sleep at the firm?”
  “Hmm?” I asked as I went with the tilt and landed on my face. “Gotta check the kid, Shell. Little Davey all alone. We can’t have that, nope. Shell...
  “Sure, honey, in the wallet,” I muttered as I drifted down into the awaiting dream of green eyes and hair. “Take all you want. All...only thing m’good...for...” Tried to wrap my fingers through her waving locks, yet they just slinked away, leaving me ashes.
  (Ashes. Bitter smoke on the wind as I stood alone on some cold, beach shore looking out into an endless gray horizon of nothingness. The wind blowing through the dried grasses behind as I stood there empty of everything. Alone. My wife was gone, nothing but rocks and broken shells at me feet. Alone, because there had been nothing I could do for her.)
  “Awe, Shell, why? My fault, yup. Nothin’...anybody...my fault all...it...”
  “No it wasn’t, Steven.”
  “Mm-hmm,” I responded as I felt a blanket being tucked in around me. “Told me so.”
  “It was not your fault. She was just a bitch that used you.”
  “Yup. But least was...had something...” I sighed before falling asleep.

  “Steven?” Hand on my shoulder; smell of coffee. “Steven, I am sorry, but it is nine.”
  “Shoot me...” I groaned.
  “You shouldn’t go back.”
  “Got to. Court delays, everythin’ backing up...” Oh, god I feel like shit... “Coffee.”
  I pushed up like a drunken sailor, grabbed back of my neck and groaned, “Fuck me...”
  “There’s breakfast.”
  “No time.” Grabbed the cup and scalded myself as I gulped. Did it again.
  “Yes there is and you’ll feel a lot better. I can drive.”
  “No way. David, you look worse than I feel. Christ, you didn’t fall, did you?” He assured me not, but man, had the bruises bloomed. “Alright, only I’ll eat on way to work. Just got to wash my face or something. Go rest, kid. I don’t know how you’re doing anything with those hands.”
  “They don’t hurt much at all,” he said as I heaved my ass up, one hand on the empty cup and other to lower back as I went into the kitchen to grab up the pot. Neck, back and now head.
  Aspirin, I needed aspirin...
  Just like I told the Doc, had always been prone to them, stress related and again, the past year had been a hell of a doosey for that so I had a stock of my little saviors in wait around the place, including the kitchen; bottle strategically placed in cabinet right above the coffee maker.
  Stock. Stocks and stockbrokers. Sheila, you bitch.
  “Fuck,” I swore as little white circles of chalk went bouncing across the counter. Grabbed up a bunch and crunched them down, the rest swept up and shoved in pants pocket. I had idea I was going to need them.
  Second cup inhaled and I was feeling closer to human again, “Great coffee, kid, thanks. Going to go change my shirt then I’m out the door. Wait...I was supposed to do something today, wasn’t I? Awe, shit, your stuff.” Rubbed my eyes briskly, “David, I’m sorry. Is tomorrow all right?”
  “Sure. Steven, I am going in too.”
  “Nope,” I said as I started heading for my room. “No point. Everything is restricted to those with higher access now. Forty-seven of us and only nine god damn passwords work. Christ, have three others watching over your shoulder so you don’t open anything you’re not supposed to. Interns are just running around for coffee and donut runs and shit. Feldman had a light stroke, or at least he might have had one. Could be an excuse because he was supposed to be in court today. They didn’t fire Sally.”
  “You’re kidding me!”
  “I wish. Baxter again, he’s got the higher ups convinced it was a virus or worm like hit the Parkinson’s. No way possible his desk muffin could do all this in one hour. Worse, the asshole tried to have Betty fired.”
  “Yep. Her responsibility to have someone trained for her station when she was off on a personal...which said he knew it wasn’t a virus, the asshole. I managed to nix that shit, not that it was hard because I wasn’t alone in the brain department. I’ve no idea how she can see through those coke-bottles, but if there’s one thing the old gal knows it’s her system. Helps that she was there way back when and was in on things from the ground up, ’cause that’s where we are about now. Be out in a sec,” I grunted and shut the door. No time for a shower, just water splashed all over and fresh shirt and suit jacket. Grabbed up another couple of extra shirts just in case and was back out, hair still dripping.
  “All right, I’m off to the grindstone. David, give Kimberly a call, okay? I’d hate to phone and wake you up or anything. At least I think the main phone lines are open again. There were about one a.m. at any rate. For an hour.”
  “I will. Don’t worry about me. Here, I wrapped everything up. Filled your thermos as well.”
  “Thanks, Felix,” I smiled, took the large paper bag and was out the door.

  Was snarling at the bimbo myself—the one who was sitting at David’s desk—when my cell buzzed, flipped it and said, “Hanscom.”
  But before the person on other end could speak, I told the bitch to get out of the chair again, “Don’t you dare touch that terminal!”
  “But I’m supposed to check the backup files, Mr. Hanscom!”
  “No, what you are doing is looking for something that doesn’t belong to you. I don’t care what your motives are, cover up or blackmail, but if you turn it on I will break your god damn fingers off.”
  “That’s, like, harassment or something!”
  “No, that is what we call a threat of bodily harm, Miss Simon. However, it is also clear that I am well within my rights to make a plea of insanity. How about it, you twit, I get a little pampered vacation and you end up with the name Stubby?”
  “You’re an asshole!”
  “Bet your ass, sweetheart. One that is going to get kicked if you do not get out of that chair now!”
  “I’ll...I’ll get you for this!”
  “Fine. Yet whatever it is it sure as hell won’t be the clap. Now move!”
  David’s voice on the phone, “She can sue you for sexual harassment for calling her sweetheart, you know.”
  “Are you kidding me? She sat down in your chair with her blouse unbuttoned to the bellybutton because she was feeling ‘hot’.”
  “Can someone Lysol my chair? I don’t want kudies or anything.”
  “Kid, places that one has been, a good dose of kudies would be the least of your problems,” I snorted as after checking to make sure she was really gone I went into my office to sit down behind my desk. “So, David, how was your day?”
  “Fine. Kimber was here. The freezer is full of ice cream.”
  “Her cure-all, eh?”
  “She is going to have to start jogging or something. I didn’t tell her that, my leg hurts bad enough.” I nodded. The girl had a thing for shins I had heard. “I sort of kicked her out though. Some of those antibiotics make me really tired. It’s like five o’clock, Steven. Did you get any sleep today?”
  “Twice in the elevator. Once up and then the trip down, I’m good,” I said even as I yawned. “So why the buzz? Your leg or something?”
  “No, I’m fine. I don’t like taking stuff like that much. Mostly I sat around so it wasn’t bad at all.”
  “Uh-huh.” I was searching my desk. No aspirin, crap, but one of the interns came in, (not from this section, I think his name was Stanly) my door open and after he’d dropped off a stack of printout (and re-nuked pizza slice) I asked if something could be rounded up.
  “Right here, sir,” he said and reached into his pocket. “I feel like I am the company dealer. Digels and Rolaids and Ibuprofen.”
  “Well fix me up with the last two. How many times has the pie been through the nuker? Looks like it went through World War Three and mutated. Holy crap,” I rubbed my sore eyes briskly, “Did it just move?”
  “There are still some of those soup-cup things. All tomato.”
  “Oh, my god. No, this is acid fest enough, thanks. I’ll skip the donuts as well. I think I caught diabetes last night. Who in their right mind stocked up on those pink frosting filled horrors? No, wait, don’t tell me, I can guess.” What a bimbo. What was it with bottle blonds and pink? No guess her drawers matched her bra. Ugh. “These in order of priority?” I flipped through the printouts, an reconstruction from memos of a current case. “I see Stanowitz is determined to bluff his way through court tomorrow. Then again, if anyone can manage he will. Give me about an hour to add the stuff I was able to pull up from the stacks. He’ll be covered.”
  I spent another couple of minutes talking details then was back to the phone, leaning back, palm rubbing my eyes again to keep them open, “Sorry, David, what were you saying?”
  “That I was wondering what to do about dinner. Would you like me to call Kimberly? She can bring some Thai or something?”
  “Too dangerous, the girl would be set upon like Red Riding Hood by a pack of rabid wolves. As is I think Levin’s wife barely made it out alive. Lucky me, I was down in the stacks when one of Betty’s daughter-in-law’s brought in a ham and sides. Hope Stanowitz didn’t bring himself any bad luck for tomorrow, though he plans a good stint at his synagogue, I hear.
  “Oops, looks like an incoming call on the monitor, I better...crap,” I swore as I bent scrambling in my desk. “Where the hell is my hairbrush?”
  “Right drawer, middle.”
  “Thanks,” I said and did a hurried job as I glanced up at the identifier. “Oh, fuck...” I breathed.
  “They rebooted everything, the old accesses are back in the system.” I should cancel it. I should... “Call you later, kid,” I murmured absently as I put the cell down and hit the key I knew I shouldn’t.
  “Hello, Steve. How are you?” Sheila asked immediately. One thing not fixable, the volume was high-blast or silent.
  Oh, my head.
  “You do not look fine.”
  “What do you want, Sheila?”
  “Just to talk. Thank you for letting my calls back in. It means a lot to me, Steve.”
  “Yeah.” I cleared my throat as I looked at hers. Tan blouse of silk cut to frame its length confidently. Classic, worlds away from the girl’s trash; amber hair like embers against it, the result naturally perfect, “Maybe I’m just used to screaming.”
  “I am sorry about that. The things I said last time.”
  “Sure you are.” I grabbed the ibuprofen and rubbed my temple as I pulled my gaze away.
  “Another headache?”
  “Yeah. Same ol’ story, just another bad day at the office.”
  “You should go home then. It is after five. You spend too much time at work, Steve.”
  “Lets just say I learned my lesson about coming home early.”
  She turned her face in guilt. Good, the bitch should be guilty, I huffed and rubbed my head harder.
  “You need a massage.”
  “Not like I’m about to get one, is it?” I scoffed, bitterness rising stronger.
  “How long has it been since you had one?”
  I snorted, “Twelve month and...” I stopped when she lowered her face, green eyes looking at me strangely.
  “Steve, you keep count of the days?”
  “No, I was going to say something sarcastic, only I couldn’t come up with anything good enough.” Bullshit.
  “Remember when you used to come home from work with one of your headaches? I would make you sit on the couch and rub till it all went away?” Of course I remembered. Rare, usually it was in the door and listening about her day of shopping before going out for dinner in some fancy restaurant and more of the same. Except when she did give them, sometimes she did it topless, feel of those warm breasts against my shoulders as she worked down from my head to neck and then front of chest.
  Places lower.
  Don’t fall for it, Steven, “What do you want, Shell? Those trust funds again, right?”
  “No, I just wanted to talk, except you look very tired, Steve. Almost sick.”
  “I’m fine. Just been a rough couple of days. Some real hour crunching going on. Probably not even going to go home tonight. Catch a few Z’s on the couch.” Why the hell was she even listening to me? No, why was I even talking?
  “Do you want me to come over there?”
  “What?” I blinked in shock as my breath caught.
  She nodded, long hair moving with the gesture, (My god, I could almost hear it, slinking cascade of silk against silk.) “Would you like me to come down to the office? You really look like you are in pain, honey. A lot of it.”
  “Just for a little while. I hate to see you hurting like that, baby. I could give you a little massage. Unless...well, unless that would cause trouble? I mean, Steve, after all this time there must be someone else?”
  “No. There hasn’t been anyone.” Son of a bitch, why did I answer her?!
  “Oh, Steven...”
  “Stop. Shell...Sheila, just stop it. Leave me alone, I can’t deal with this right now.” I lowered my face and put a hand across my eyes, taking a couple of deep breaths.
  “Are you sure, honey? Really sure?”
  Wavering and I hated myself for it. It had to be an act, I knew this woman better than that.
  Only...what if I was wrong? What if I was blowing this one chance at...?
  No, do not feel hope. Not now!
  “Yeah, I’m sure,” I managed to husk.
  Then added disgustingly, “Not tonight I mean. Too crazy here. Too much...I have to take care of.”
  “All right. Do you think you could call me sometime though? Just to talk? For lunch or something?”
  “Sure. For lunch or something.”
  “Thank you, honey. I will let you get back to work now. Do not forget to call me, you promise?”
  “Yeah. I promise.”
  “Bye, Steve.”
  “Yeah. Bye, Shell.” She clicked off and I did the same.
  Lowered my face deeper, both hands across my eyes, “Oh, Shell, don’t do this to me. Not now, I’m too god damn tired for this shit. So fucking tired of all of it...”
  Took several deep breaths and sat up, “Come on, Steven, hold it together, you fucking, pathetic wimp. You know what you need to do. Got the plans and the date all set. Everything is taken care of, all you need to do is keep busy in the meantime. No letting that bitch get her claws back into you either, nope. She broke her promise first, so I own her one.” Only, what if I was wrong? Worse, what if I was right? Chance to get my life back again, only to have things fall back into the same old pattern of using and betrayal?
  “Damn you, Shell, you killed me you know that? Slow bullet right to the brain, yup. Still, last laugh is going to be mine, not yours. No way and no fucking how. Amen.”
  Time to get back to work. Promised those notes to be added to the stack and I spread papers and files across the full of my desk, head still pounding.
  “Healthy as a Kentucky race horse at the gate, fine. Still, I better call up the Doc. These over the counter bites of chalk aren’t cutting it. Just stress, but it’s a killer, and I’ve an idea it will be so right up until the end. Ha, talk about counting days.
  “Owe...damn this really hurts. Know I deserve it but... Christ, what a wimp. But no, no massages, bitch. Go stroke someone else’s ‘head’ to open their wallet. Nope, no phone calls, yet I’ll still see you later, whore. Date with a fucking DVD player. God, please, somebody shoot me...”
  Several hours later I was back in the office looking for my cell. Getting way too wonky, forgetting stuff everywhere. After midnight and they had taken the main phones off the line again. The techs brought in rebooting more back-up systems, installing new ones, I didn’t know or care. No way was I able to drive home, just going to do my crashing on the couch in the office. Wanted to call the kid though, let him know I wasn’t jellied in a pile-up, but the cell was dead, batteries run out. Guess when I dropped it I hadn’t clicked it off completely. Ah well, too late now.
  Late and late, yet despite my exhaustion and the ‘mild’ pills the Doc had given me, the old problem was back to haunt me. Would wake up in worse shape if I slept on the carpet, so no matter the bad memories it was the couch and futile attempt at relief.
  Tried to think of anyone else, Shell the Whore; the bimbo; girl behind the dessert counter at the local gourmet shop and even the old broad I’d met at the nightclub, but nothing worked till I gave in and brought image of sandy-blond hair.
  You’re sick, Steven. Just a sick, disgusting, screwed-up pervert and you deserve to go to hell, and I was glad that the result was pain and not pleasure.
  No relief, no satisfaction...no point to anything.
  Not much longer, Steven. Couple of weeks, the days are counting down fast. Your a sick fuck and a wimp, but you can hold on till then.
  “Merry God damn Christmas, asshole,” I sneered and passed out.


Continues with Episode Four, Part Two
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