RATING: R for language and themes (gen fic)
WARNINGS: Aftermath isn't always pretty; may distress some readers.
SUMMARY: Chapter one of three in the epilogue to Aftershocks: A Story in Shattered Pieces.
DISCLAIMER: Don't own 'em. Never will.
AUTHOR NOTES: Word count for this chapter is ~9300 words. The other chapters will be shorter.
Reelfoot Rift is a major seismic zone that covers parts of five U.S. states: Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
The zone had four of the largest North American earthquakes in recorded history, with magnitude estimates of 7.0 to 7.9 on the Richter scale, all occurring within a 3 month period between 1811 and 1812. Hundreds of aftershocks followed, including nine events of magnitude greater than 5.0.
In 1974, instruments were installed in and around the area to closely monitor seismic activity. Since then, more than 4,000 earthquakes have been recorded. On average, one earthquake per year is large enough to be felt.
Scientists anticipate that more significant seismic events will occur in the future in Reelfoot Rift.
Reelfoot Rift: Tim
Tracy straightens her lapels. She’s been speaking to the man sitting in the recliner in front of her for two hours, and she now hates him even more than she had coming into this interview. But she’s a journalist, and this is a great story: the life of an enforcer.
She’ll get at least three pieces out of this. There’ll be a lengthy feature, an even lengthier analysis, and a shorter promo with just the juiciest quotes. Gene Feldman might even be persuaded to do a documentary, or a fictionalized drama. This could take Tracy anywhere.
She just has to control her revulsion and get through the rest of the interview.
“That’s how it goes,” Francis “Call me Tim” Logan says, and Tracy blinks and focuses again on his pale face. Framed as it is by his thin gray hair and sideburns, it looks as bleached-out as a faded fossil shell above the tide line, except for his nose, which broken capillaries have stained red. Even the few small moles on his cheeks look faded, rolling into the fine wrinkles on his face.
“Some mook doesn’t follow the rules,” Tim continues, “doesn’t make good on his obligations, then we gotta get involved. Because he’s got to be made to understand that the world doesn’t work like that. He’s got to be shown the error of his ways.”
Tim has spoken in the present tense for most of the interview, as if he’s still active in that life instead of tucked away before his time in a pleasant but remote retirement home. “Every job, that’s what I do. I show a wrongdoer the error of his ways. I’ve never taken a job on an innocent man.”
“But you’ve hurt innocent people,” Tracy reminds him.
“Nah.” Tim leans over the side table next to his chair and sips his drink through the straw. Everything in his bearing and expression indicates that he’s being sincere.
Tracy feels sick but doesn’t let it show. “You said – let me check.” She flips back through her notebook, grateful as always about being proficient in shorthand. “Here it is: ‘We grabbed his brother coming out of the headshrinker’s. Hardly had to touch him, that babbo was so messed up already.’ When you were done with him, he ended up in the hospital for over a week.”
“But see, the job wasn’t on him. It was on his bastard brother who owed more than a couple of thousand and decided he’d try to pay it off with shit-laced coke. Not smart. And not honest. No integrity at all, that mosky.”
“However, you didn’t hurt him, the ‘mosky.’ You hurt his brother, who wasn’t involved.”
Snorting, Tim looks at her with an amused but exasperated expression. “Everybody’s involved, whether they want to be or not. But we had to take the brother; taking the mosky wouldn’t have done a damn thing.” He leans over and takes another sip. “Some people – no, really, it’s a lot of people; you’d be surprised how many – don’t give a damn about themselves. They’ll do any fucking stupid thing to themselves. Aimlessly suicidal, my friend Nick called them. So if you want to correct them, educate them, you’ve got to strike at someone near them, just so the message gets through.”
Stomach tight and aching, Tracy has to force out her next words. “The ends justify the means, is that what you’re saying?”
“You’ve got to get the job done,” Tim replies, nodding. “I’ve never lost a night’s sleep over it.”
He takes another sip from his drink, and then straightens up and settles back in his chair. “Which is not to say that everyone feels the same as me. Dr. X and Dr. Y sure didn’t.”
Tracy’s eyes are drawn to the sage green silk gloves covering Tim’s hands as he waves them through the air and begins to tell his next tale.
The wedding reception was excruciatingly boring. Tim liked his new girlfriend, Pam, well enough, but if this was how her family threw parties, he was going to have to reconsider. He couldn’t even glaze the dullness over with alcohol because the cheap bastard parents didn’t spring for a bar.
Ignoring Pam’s glare, he got in line for the buffet for the third time, just to have something to do. He was considering what Pam could do to make this up to him – finally letting him in her butt later and getting on her knees in the bathroom here in the fellowship hall were currently one and two – when the woman ahead of him stepped out of line.
He moved forward without looking and accidentally bumped into some guy being picky about the shrimp. Must be a family member, Tim thought contemptuously, if that boring brown suit is any indication. No tie, though, which was a little weird for a wedding.
“Sorry,” Tim grunted, as he began scanning the buffet table again.
The guy looked up, took a big step back, and made a choked gasp as if he was in real pain. Tim rolled his eyes and reached past him for the shrimp. “Calm down, buddy,” he scoffed. “I didn’t hit you that hard.”
When he looked up again, the guy was gone, and Pam was standing in his place. “I can’t believe you’re getting food again. You want everybody to think you’re a pig?” she spat, and fuck it, not even the possibility of sticking it in her sweet ass was worth this. He was going to break up with her the minute this stupid reception was over, and never mind that he’d have to rent a car to get back to Ithaca.
“Sorry, baby,” he cooed and followed her back to the table, because she was just enough of a slut that he might still have a shot at that hummer in the bathroom.
Forty tedious minutes of conversation and three hand-slaps later, he had to conclude she was not actually that much of a slut. When he got back from his solo trip to the bathroom, he grabbed another piece of cake and sat several tables away; Pam didn’t seem to care.
The monotony was finally broken, a little, when a guy hooked his cane on the edge of the table and took a seat two over from Tim.
“Damn, this thing’s boring as shit,” the guy said, rubbing a hand across his forehead. “Oh, wait, you’re not the groom’s brother or something, are you?”
Tim sneered. “Hell, no; don’t start thinking I had anything to do with this. I’m only here because of my girlfriend, who’s cousins with the bride. I don’t know a soul.”
“Well, at least you’re getting laid out of it.” The guy, a fidgety sort, started tapping his cane lightly against the side of the table. “I don’t even have that. My loser roommate – he works with the groom – couldn’t get a date so he dragged me along. I can’t believe they don’t have a bar. He owes me so big.”
Laughing quietly, Tim replied, “To tell you the truth, these people are such a drag that I’m even going to pass up on getting laid.”
The man quirked an eyebrow. “Don’t get hasty, now.”
“No, I haven’t even known her that long, and this whole thing has convinced me she’s not worth it. I’m dumping her right after this party.”
Tim flinched a bit when the guy jabbed his cane lightly into Tim’s leg. “If you’re going to do it anyway,” the guy said, “why not dump her now, in front of everyone? It’d certainly liven things up.” There was a mischievous glint in his eye, and Tim knew the suggestion was only half a joke. Crazy bastard.
Deciding to ignore that suggestion, Tim replied, “Booze is what’s really needed to liven things up around here.”
“Ah, yes. Well, since we’re sharing secrets, here’s one of mine.” Looking around to make sure no one was watching, he brought his cane into his lap and started unscrewing the head. “You can call me John, by the way,” he said as he maneuvered.
“Tim,” he replied absently, wondering what the hell this John guy was doing.
Smiling, John pulled a silver tube about six inches long from inside the cane, unscrewed the tube’s cap, and took a long pull. “Bourbon,” he said, offering the flask to Tim. “Not the best stuff on the market, but not rotgut either. Want some?”
Tim scoffed and grabbed the tube. “Like you have to ask.”
As they passed the flask back and forth, keeping it out of sight of everyone else, the conversation flowed easily from topic to topic: music, sports, TV, favorite foods. They were guffawing over this funny-ass joke John had just told when Pam stomped up.
“Tim! You’re bothering everyone!”
He looked up at her and wondered why he’d never noticed how unattractive the wrinkles between her eyebrows were. “By having fun? I guess that would bother your stick-up-the-ass family.”
John snorted and Tim grinned at him. It appeared John was going to get the mid-party breakup he’d asked for.
“You’re impossible!” Pam shrieked. Her older brother – Alex or something – and a younger, beefy-looking guy walked up behind her.
“And you’re not nearly as good in bed as the Elks Club claimed,” Tim retorted.
John looked about ready to fall off his chair with laughter, and then he did, right into Alex’s hands. Tim felt himself being jerked out of his chair, and then he and John were out the door, on the sidewalk.
“Wuss,” John snickered at him.
“Why bother to walk out when you can make someone carry you?” Tim retorted, and loosened his tie. That sounded like bullshit posturing, but it was perfectly true. If Tim hadn’t been in the mood to leave, that punk kid would’ve found himself with a few very badly mangled fingers.
Twirling his cane, John pointed toward a silver car nearby. “There’s a bar near my hotel; want to go?”
“Damn straight,” Tim replied, and off they went, pulling into the parking lot at their destination only five minutes later.
At the back of the dim but lively bar, they had a few more drinks and a lot more laughs. Tim was starting to feel a little fuzzy-headed, which was strange, because he really hadn’t drunk that much. John just thumped him on the back and offered to let him sleep it off in his hotel room.
“Come on,” John said, picking up his cane and heading for the door. “It’s just a short walk. Get a good night’s sleep, and my friend and I’ll drive you back to Ithaca tomorrow.”
“Hey,” Tim called, following him out into the night air, “where is your friend? Took off with a bridesmaid? They were woofers, but you said he’s a loser, right?”
John sped up; Tim had to break into a trot just to keep up. “I was just busting on him, calling him a loser. He’s a good guy, an excellent friend. He’s done so much for me, and I just keep searching for better ways to show him I love him.”
Tim snorted and narrowly avoided tripping over a fucked-up section of sidewalk hidden in a shadow from the streetlights. Recovering his stride and catching up again – John walked damn fast for a crippled guy – he replied, “You two aren’t fags, are you?”
The sidewalk ended just then, and John headed into the parking lot of a hotel. Low-rise buildings, supposed to look like townhouses, with picnic areas, a basketball court, and probably a pool around them – “extended-stay,” this kind of place was called. The rooms were suites, with a kitchen, living room, and separate bedroom. Tim had stayed in something like this a couple of times for work.
“No,” John replied, “we’re not even gay.”
His head was stuffed with cotton and his eyes were starting to dance. Damn, what’d they put in those drinks at the bar? He hadn’t drunk, wouldn’t’ve drunk, near enough to get as hammered as he was feeling. He had to drag his mind back to the conversation, even as he let his body fall onto the picnic bench John’d led him to.
Oh yeah, faggots. “Fags are gay.”
“Yes. I was dissecting connotation, but never mind.” John’s head and upper shoulders had disappeared; that was weird. Oh, wait, they were coming back. He’d just been pulling something out from under the picnic table. It was a metal can that made a thwong sound as he slammed it onto the table.
“Neither of us is gay,” John was saying, and Tim blinked. Faggotry was the topic of conversation, right. “But I’d let him fuck my ass every night if it would do anything at all to make up for what you did to him.”
John leaned close, across the table, and his teeth looked like wolf’s teeth. Tim felt a flutter of something rumbling around under the cotton in his head and chest, and he struggled to stay upright, listen to John, and at the same time figure out what that flutter was.
“What I did?” he asked, his words slurring a little. “Wha’d I do?”
“Broken ribs, ruptured spleen, lacerated liver,” John said like he was reading off a checklist. “Bruised kidneys, chipped vertebrae, broken collarbone. Crushed left hand, although I don’t think you’re broad enough to have been the one who did that. Broken nose and broken jaw, too, though you’re definitely not young or blond enough to have landed those blows. But you held him down, didn’t you? Restrained him while that sick punk –”
John cut off. His left hand was rubbing his forehead again, and his right was tapping that can against the table. Lighter fluid, Tim realized suddenly, and then in the next breath identified the flutter-rumble that was growing stronger and more urgent with each passing second.
It wasn’t provoking any action in Tim, though, and that was really goddamned weird. He looked over at John – fake name for sure, the guy hadn’t worn it well, and Tim really should have seen, he wasn’t supposed to be so fucking stupid off the clock – and saw him clearly for the first time. He was a job. Some job, some time, Tim couldn’t remember, but obviously this guy’d been a suicider so they’d snatched his friend.
Tim’s tongue felt huge and slippery, but he managed to get out, “The job was on you, wunnit? So you’re the one ’oo fucked up. Blame y’self.”
“I do every day,” John said quietly.
“Sss yer fault,” Tim protested, and tried to figure out why his legs weighed a thousand tons. He shifted to try to pull his leg over the bench, to get away, but only succeeded in tilting slowly sideways. John had to push him upright again.
“Yes, it’s my fault,” replied John, “and as I said, I’m always looking for ways to atone.” He looked off into the distance, and then back at Tim. “Want a cigarette?”
What the fuck? The fear was rumbling loudly now, shredding the cotton with its vibrations, but his body was so heavy, made of lead; he couldn’t go, couldn’t get away. A little whine left his throat.
In one swift move, John pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, tapped them open, and put one between Tim’s lips. Firing squad, Tim thought. Where’s my blindfold and last fucking request? Tim’s hands were stuck to the picnic table, and John patted them once before retreating back to his own bench.
“You know, I used to be friends with the guy who led you that day,” John continued. He pulled a lighter out of his pocket and started to twirl it in his fingers. “Way back when, before I knew who Martin truly was. He liked to tell me this story – a joke, he called it, but it wasn’t funny – about two boys messing around with lighter fluid. I remembered it when we checked in here this evening, and the clerk started babbling about their barbecue pits.”
John smirked, and in the strange, filtered, buzzing light from the parking lot area, his eyes looked almost silver.
“The story’s too long for me to tell now. Do you still talk to Martin? You could ask him about it; he loves having a new audience. Anyway, suffice it to say, long story short, the moral of the story is: it was an accident.”
Tim was trapped in John’s silver eyes, where the only blessing was that he couldn’t see those wolf teeth any more.
“The only thing you have to remember is that it was an accident. Got it?”
Tim nodded and closed his eyes as the warm liquid squirted across his hands and forearms. He tried again to pull back, to get up, but he was stuck, heavy, heavy like a fucking black hole.
“Don’t lose your cigarette,” John chastised, and Tim’s lips tried to clench without him even thinking about it. “I’m going to light it for you now.”
Tim had never felt anything like it. He had been hit, kicked, stabbed once, scraped across pavement at thirty miles per hour. Nothing compared to this. He felt a small ache in his ear and realized it was from the volume of his scream.
Then John was throwing ashes from the barbecue grill on him and the flames went out. “That was a terrible accident,” John said with absolutely no emotion. “It’s a good thing I know a caring doctor right nearby.”
The adrenaline pumping through Tim’s veins must have jolted his nerves or something, because when John yanked at him, he was able to slide to the end of the bench and get his legs out from under the table. He unsteadily rose to his feet, then staggered forward as John shoved at the small of his back.
The pain was there every second, and Tim was proud of himself for not screaming again.
After some stumbling and one fall to his knees, he was moving with John toward the closest building. The slight breeze that their movement stirred stung Tim’s skin, and his stomach began to churn. John was a relentless taskmaster, however, so Tim had to continue staggering to keep up.
A door opened in front of them, a person silhouetted by the light from the room. “House?” the person called with a small quake.
“Go back inside,” John replied gently, and jerked on Tim’s upper arm .
Then they were in the hotel room, and the figure from the door turned out to be a pale white man with mussed hair and brown eyes that were large and almost liquid.
“You can’t –” the man whispered, and John stopped in the middle of the room. Tim tried to keep going – he’d spotted a sink he could throw up in – but John restrained him, a hand on his arm and another on his back.
“He’s hurt,” John said, his voice an odd mixture of pleading and command. “Badly. We have to help him.”
“Then let’s call 911.” The brown-eyed man looked around the room as if searching for the phone.
John let go of Tim, stepped closer to the man, and put a hand on his bicep. “He won’t go to a hospital. He doesn’t want a paper trail.” Keeping his body oriented toward his friend, John craned his neck back around to look at Tim. “Isn’t that right, Mr. Smith?”
Tim nodded dumbly, all his effort going into staying upright. He’d given up hope of reaching the sink. The pain was spread in a strange pattern across his hands and arms, his stomach was still twisting, and the rest of his body was unbearably weak. He was also colder than he could recall ever being, and he wondered why Brown Eyes was keeping the room like a meat locker.
“Tweedle,” the guy said, and Tim wondered if his mind had snapped.
When John arched an eyebrow, Brown Eyes looked down. “His name is Mr. Tweedle,” he said quietly. “Dee Tweedle.” When he looked up again, his eyes held a strangely sheepish look, which he aimed right at Tim.
“Your brother’s name was Dum.”
Tim felt impolite rolling his eyes, but it was actually just part of the fainting.
When he came to, he was lying on the couch, his left hand on his chest and his right across his stomach, on top of a clean white bath towel. Tim didn’t feel as nauseated as before, and while the pain was still high, it had dropped a little. With some focus, a few mental tricks, he could deal. He’d had worse pain before. Once or twice.
The two guys were screaming at each other in whispers, and Tim felt oddly nostalgic for his childhood. He closed his eyes again and listened.
“House! Are you insane? Clinically insane?”
“No names. I told him mine was John. You need a fake one too – Will. That’s your name now.”
“John, what about Martin?”
“What about him? Even if he hears about this accident, there’s no way he gives a shit about this guy. It’d probably give him a laugh.”
“We still can’t keep the man here. We have to take him to the hospital.”
“He won’t go the hospital. He won’t.”
“He’s unconscious now; he doesn’t have a choice. Just cram him in the car and drop him at the nearest E.R.”
“If I recite all the flaws in that plan, we’ll be here all night. So let’s just go with the biggie: he can’t leave a paper trail. If he does, the men he works for will find out and they’ll assume he let something slip while he was in pain. Then they’ll torture and kill – oh. Never mind. You’re right: hospital it is.”
Tim felt the fear flare vividly and begin to rumble. John was not wrong about his employer. They’d probably send Don, their best expert with electricity, and Cook with his damn knife, and Bobby. A racist son-of-a-bitch, he’d gotten a weird gleam in his eye when he learned Tim’s one great-grandmother had come from the Philippines. Tim was fucked. He’d be better off if he could just provoke these two into killing him outright, but his head was too damn foggy and his legs still didn’t seem to want to move.
“They’ll kill him?” Will asked, with something that might have been concern in his voice.
John said plainly, “I’m probably wrong,” and that seemed to seal the deal. Tim heard steps, the bang of a cabinet, and the sound of water running.
“Two band-aids and a bottle of Advil’s not going to cut it,” Will said. “Go get supplies while I start cleaning the wounds. And some instruments for debridement, although I don’t know where you’re going to get those. Have you thought this all the way through? Are we going to be stuck here for the weeks it’ll take for these burns to heal?”
There was a jingle of keys and then John spoke. “I’m sure he’s got his own doctor somewhere, somebody on the company payroll. We’ll just take care of him until he stabilizes – twenty-four hours, let’s say – and then we’ll take him to his own doctor.”
The water stopped. “Even without Martin,” Will said, “I don’t want these people back in my life. I wouldn’t live through it, no matter what they did to me.” The despair in his voice was cutting; Tim screwed his eyes more tightly closed.
“We helped him after an accident. They’ll be grateful.”
“I find that very hard to believe.”
After a pause, the keys jingled again and the door closed with a loud click. Tim kept his eyes closed and his breathing steady, right in time with the pulsing of his pain. He was alone with brown-eyed Will, a man who’d gotten himself into the middle of a job and come out worse for the wear. Tim couldn’t remember him, even with the couple of clues he’d heard, but there was no reason to think the man would look on him kindly.
Tim was fucked.
He felt a hand on his and jerked back, then hissed as his pain shot up.
“You’re awake?” Will asked; Tim didn’t bother to answer. Fuck, it hurt. He was using every technique he’d ever learned to keep the pain from getting to him, but his head was still foggy, and fuck, it hurt.
“I’m a doctor,” Will said, “and h– John is too. We’ll have some pain medication for you soon.”
Tim cracked open an eye. The guy looked serious, which was interesting even though Tim couldn’t fully buy it.
“But now,” Will continued, “you need to let me have your hands so I can clean your wounds and see what we’re dealing with.”
“Burns,” Tim croaked out. “Bad ones. Take me home.”
Will shook his head. He was sitting on the coffee table, a bowl of clear water and fresh towels next to him. “First step is to assess; second step is to clean. We can’t do anything else until those are done, or you risk exacerbating the trauma.”
“John told me – unh – what you think I’ve done to you. No way I’m going to let you touch me.” Pulling away, Tim twisted toward the back of the couch, grunting at the spike when he jostled his elbow.
Will sighed and then was quiet for a long minute. In the background, Tim could hear the rumble of the refrigerator and the faint noise of a television, maybe from the room next door.
Leaning toward Tim, Will spoke quietly but firmly. “I’m not going to hurt you or, um, mess you up. I can’t, in this circumstance, because of the ethics of my profession. Have you ever heard of the Hippocratic Oath?”
“First do no harm,” Tim said into the couch cushions.
“That’s not actually in the oath, but it is a cornerstone of medical ethics, along with the duty to use my skills to treat people in need.”
Tim rolled onto his back and lifted his left hand off his chest a fraction. Will gently grasped Tim’s left forearm and pulled up so he could get a good look at Tim’s hand.
Trying to keep his hand as still as possible, trying to minimize the searing caused by any stretching, Tim closed his eyes. He could feel the strength in Will’s thumb and fingers as he twisted Tim’s forearm, no doubt to examine the hand from every angle.
“Of course,” Will continued, his voice a little flat, a little distant, “I’m an oncologist. I have to harm people every day. Cut them open and hack out their organs, poison them, bomb them with radiation - make their hair fall out, make them vomit, make them ache, make them weak and weary and defenseless.”
Tim felt his arm being lowered to his chest and then heard a low rustling.
“And that’s just boring, safe me,” said Will. “You should see how far, uh, John takes it. He’s ruthless when he’s trying to find a cure, trying to get people back on their feet.”
The pause that followed was long enough for Tim to start counting the beats of his own heart. It seemed louder than normal, and definitely faster, and Tim wondered again why he was having so much trouble trying to get his legs to move, why he felt so trapped.
“This is going to hurt,” Will said, and it did, and Tim fell into unconsciousness again.
“Is this really necessary?” was the next thing Tim heard.
The pain in Tim’s palms and forearms had mutated, added a new sensation. In addition to searing, now it was itching, little hairy-legged spider steps crawling against him. It took up all his concentration for a moment, and then slowly he realized he was no longer on the couch. A short expanse of cream-colored cotton on either side of him, soft pillow under his head, steel rod pressing cross-ways to his spine – he was on a rollaway bed.
“We don’t have to –” Will was still protesting when John spoke, scorn evident in every word.
“Yes, we do have to. God, use your head.” The words were accompanied by a tug at Tim’s right ankle; he looked down to see John tightening a knot. He hadn’t noticed the pressure before, but each of his ankles was secured in a bandage and then tied to something sturdy Tim couldn’t see. Probably the bed frame; that was what Tim would have done.
“He’s been distracted up until now,” John continued, “but at some point his mind will clear. If he’s free, he’ll go after us. We have to keep him secure.”
“What was that you said about him being grateful for our help?” Will asked sarcastically. John’s eyes rolled; Will’s hands went to his hips. “He’s in pain; he can’t use his hands. What could he do?”
John leaned across Tim, balancing some of his weight on Tim’s shins, and yanked sharply at the knotted bandage on his other ankle. “He hurts people for a living! There are certainly at least a couple of hands-free techniques in his toolkit. Or don’t you remember?”
Will gave John a glare and then walked away, across the room and through a doorway, slamming the door behind him.
John watched him go and then snorted quietly. Still watching the door Will had gone through, he told Tim, “I know you’re awake. Bet those hands hurt like a motherfuck. Are you allergic to any medications?”
“Pity.” John finally looked at him, and then Tim wished he wouldn’t. “I couldn’t get you the really primo shit for pain relief, it being the last minute and practically the middle of the night and all, but second best should be good enough for a tough guy like you, right? Some IV fluids and antibiotics –” John held up a long needle attached to a tube. “– and you’ll get through the first twenty-four hours just fine. After that, we’re dumping your ass in Ithaca, and it’ll be your doctor’s problem.”
John reached toward Tim’s arm, but it seemed to be happening in slow motion. Tim’s thoughts tumbled like clothes in a dryer – doctor, hurt, pain relief, flames, accident, joke that wasn’t funny, wolf, silver, first do no harm. He wanted the pain medication so badly, but the flutter-rumble of fear momentarily overwhelmed everything and he yanked his arm away. “No.”
John actually smiled, like he’d been hoping for that reaction.
“Refusing treatment? Not a good idea, but it’s the patient’s call. The pain in your palms is only going to get worse, especially if infection starts to set in, but hey, big strong man like you can handle it, sure.”
“You did this to me,” Tim pointed out, and tried to push the thought of bacteria and pus and stink out of his mind. People could inflict a lot of damage on each other, but what germs could do to a wound was so much worse.
“Accident, my dear Mr. Tweedle; it was an accident. And you can see from my face that I’m very, very distraught over it.”
Tim didn’t plan to look at John’s face any more than he had to. He stretched the fingers of his left hand experimentally and sucked in a breath as they scraped against the clean gauze and the pain skyrocketed.
“The other doctor could give it to me,” he said a few moments later, when he could find the air to speak.
“Sure,” John replied. He had gotten a glass of water and was now sitting on the couch. “No skin off my teeth. Dermatology joke there.” John flipped on the TV. “Of course, he’s gone to bed, I think. Probably be several hours, and the longer you go without fluid, the more your flesh’ll die, and the more extensive grafting you’ll need in the future. Your call, though.”
Bastard, Tim thought. Bastard. “OK.”
“OK, you’ll wait? Awesome. SportsCenter’s on.”
“OK, give me the drugs!”
John raised his eyebrows but kept his stupid butt on the couch. “Are you sure? You really trust me?”
“No,” Tim spit out. “But I need the drugs.”
John shrugged and rose from the couch, and before Tim knew it, there was a needle in his arm and a plastic bag taped to the wall behind his head.
He hadn’t noticed it before, but the fluid in the bag reminded him. “I gotta pee.”
“Go ahead,” John said, shrugging. “Stuck a condom cath on you while you were out, so you can pee whenever you like. Wasn’t that nice of me, not to make you lay in your own piss?”
“You put a tube in my dick?”
“No, you baby, it’s an external cath that’s like a condom. Hence the name. Not that giving you a rod up your urethra doesn’t appeal, but this was easier.”
Now that John had told him, Tim could feel it. It was weird, incredibly weird, but the ache in his bladder died down. Hands still hurt, though.
“You might want to try to sleep,” John said cheerfully a few minutes later. “In a while, we’re going to have to debride your wound.”
“What’s debride mean?”
“Scrape away the dead flesh, so the live tissue has a chance to heal.”
The pain was starting to dampen, and the cotton was packing back into Tim’s head. “You gave me something to knock me out again,” he accused.
“Yep,” John replied from the end of a long tunnel.
“Thanks,” Tim slurred.
A blunt object jabbing him in the ribs jolted Tim out of sleep. For a split second, he was still in the smoky little honky tonk, his right hand tucked into the back pocket of a pretty gal’s jeans as they swayed on the dance floor. But the gal’s jeans caught on fire and Tim’s breath was swept away as the flames engulfed his hands.
“Drugs not working,” he gasped as John lowered his cane back to the floor.
“Told you I couldn’t get my hands on the good stuff. But it’ll be time for another dose soon.”
Willie Nelson’s distinctive tenor was warbling in the background. Tim thought maybe this album was one of his favorites, although he currently couldn’t quite make out the words around the rush in his ears.
“Knock me out again,” he demanded.
“Sure you want to be unconscious?” John hadn’t moved an inch, but his face still seemed to be looming. “All kinds of things might happen to a man when he’s unconscious.”
“Cut it out,” Will interjected, pushing John away. He then pulled a chair up closer to the bed, sat, and began to lay out some things. “These are nice quality instruments. Where did you get – You know what? Never mind. I don’t want to know.” Will sighed. “You’ve been up all this time; go sleep. I’ve got him.”
“Sure?” John asked, one eyebrow raised.
Will rolled his eyes and kept arranging whatever it was he was arranging. Tim decided not to look, because there was nothing he could do. Whether Will planned to help Tim or torture him, seeing the tools wouldn’t make a difference.
“You can turn the music off before you go,” Will continued.
“But this is Tweedle’s favorite singer, told me so himself. I thought it might make a nice distraction during the debridement.”
Tim’s mind was still moving slower than usual, but he caught that implication right away. “Not putting me to sleep for the skin scrape?”
“Limited supplies,” John said mournfully, and Tim wanted to punch him. Tim’s right fist curled instinctively, and he couldn’t keep the resulting moan in.
When Tim opened his eyes a moment later, John was gone and Will was doing something to Tim’s IV line. “This is another dose of pain relief, but we don’t have any more sedatives that we can give you. I actually have prescription diazepam for myself, but seem to be running lower on it than I thought I was. It’s probably better that you stay conscious during the procedure, anyway, so you can tell me if anything feels wrong.”
“How would I know?”
Will smiled quietly. His eyes had gone very distant again. He picked something up – Tim looked away – and leaned over Tim’s right hand. “To let you know, this procedure is absolutely necessary for effective burn care, and I’m competent to perform it. Sorry to say, though, I don’t have quite the fine motor control that I used to, so that may increase your pain.”
Tim braced himself, but what he felt next was more like a tugging sensation than anything else. His hand still hurt, but not more than before – in fact, the pain killers were probably kicking in because both hands seemed to throb somewhat less.
Odd that Will thought this scrape thing would hurt; maybe he had a low threshold for pain. Tim tended to remember the screamers, though, and with Martin Grey as crew chief, there’s no way they would’ve let the guy have the blessing of being constantly passed out.
He puzzled over that for several minutes, staring at the anonymous hotel artwork and enjoying the music, getting lost in Willie’s tenor. When he felt his right hand being turned over, he was humming along to the song – If I lose or win, how will I know? – feeling something weirdly close to content.
“OK,” Will said, and in the next second Tim had to choke off a scream.
“Stop,” he gasped. Will looked up, a mild sort of curiosity in his eyes, and stilled his movements.
Tim panted for a few minutes until the pain receded. “Holy shit,” he breathed. “That fucking hurt.”
“This procedure,” Will intoned, “is absolutely necessary –”
Tim cut him off. “Didn’t fucking hurt like that when you started.”
Will looked back down at Tim’s hand again. “I started with the back of your hand, where the burns are most severe.”
“Wouldn’t that hurt more?” The itching came back, and Tim tried not to hiss.
“They’re so severe that the nerve endings have been destroyed. They’re deep, third-degree burns. The surrounding wounds on the sides and front of your hands and on your forearms are second-degree burns, affecting the epidermis and dermis but not reaching to the hypodermis. The nerve endings are intact, so you feel pain.”
Tim had taken a class on military history at a local college one time for kicks. Great subject, fascinating reading, interesting discussion with classmates… and a teacher who was so dull that he sucked every bit of fun out of the whole damn thing. Will’s voice was flatter and duller than that guy’s had been. Maybe he was trying to bore Tim into sleep, but it wasn’t working.
Tim carefully pulled his hand up onto his chest, hissing when he unintentionally rubbed his thumb against his shirt. “Don’t fucking touch me.”
“You have the right to refuse treatment, but I strongly suggest that you don’t. Without debridement, your flesh won’t have much of a chance to heal, and it’s likely your fingers will fuse together. If I can work with them carefully now, I can keep them separate and preserve as much function as possible. If not, you’ll need extensive surgery later for even a hope of recovery.”
Brown eyes looked steadily into Tim’s.
This guy. He was being serious, being – what’s the word? – earnest. Tim couldn’t figure him out at all. Living with the guy who’d gotten him snatched and taken down. Treating one of the men who’d taken him down. Why hadn’t Will killed both of them and washed his hands of it?
Just then Tim’s ears clicked into the song playing: I felt my head spinning round and round. Lord, I poured my dreams, and I drank them down.
I fucking hear you, Tim thought, and offered his hand back to Will.
Tim had never been in a tiny plane during turbulence, but he imagined that’d be the closest to this experience with pain. Moving forward, bobbling and wavering but more or less steady, and then wham, hit an air current or whatever and plunge into freefall. Struggle against the damn thing, pull back on the stick with all your might, get back up to cruising altitude, and then get knocked hard again. No way to predict, no way to control, just hold on as tight as you can, and hope that the next time you won’t slam into a mountainside.
Passing out had never felt so good. Tim tried to do it as often as he could.
Over the next few hours, every time he came back to himself, brown-eyed Will was there, either bent over Tim’s hands or passively watching the TV with the volume low. Black-and-white stuff mostly, Tim noticed.
Unlike John, Will wasn’t much of a talker. Or maybe he was holding in what he wanted to say. Either way, when the pain wasn’t too much to bear, the quiet started to get to Tim. He needed a distraction.
“So you’re a cancer doctor?” he asked.
Will turned slowly away from the television – another black-and-white show, with a leopard walking through a living room, of all things – and toward Tim. “Yes.”
“And you do surgery?”
“I did. You took that away from me.”
Tim waited for Will to go on. That’d be the polite thing to do, after all, but Will didn’t seem inclined. The room fell back into silence except for the quiet murmur of the TV.
Why did the pretty lady have a leopard? Tim couldn’t follow the story, although Will seemed glued to it.
Tim flexed his fingers experimentally, and dealing with that flare took up the next bit of time. Fuck, stupid, fuck.
The plane was almost back up to a steady state when out of nowhere Will said, “I had sex.”
“What?” Tim grunted.
Will kept his eyes on the screen. “I had sex about six months ago. It wasn’t very good. I used to be good at sex. Excellent, in fact. Found it so unbelievably satisfying to give a woman pleasure. But, along with surgery, that’s another thing you took from me. I can’t close my eyes now, can’t listen to heavy breathing, can’t stand to feel silk.”
Totally confused, Tim sucked in a breath so he could ask, “Did someone work over your johnson? We don’t normally do that if the guy’s just collateral and not the job.”
“Forget it,” Will snapped, and stood abruptly. He turned the TV off with a jab at the remote, turned the music on, loud, and then stomped into the bedroom.
John stumbled out a moment later, leaning heavily on his cane, eyes bleary and hair sticking up every which way. As he lurched toward the coffee maker, he snarled at Tim, “Go to sleep, you moron, because I don’t want to deal with you.”
The pain had settled into a steady bumping jiggle, so Tim did his best to oblige.
He went in and out over the next period of time, escaping into unconsciousness when he could and coping with the pain when he couldn’t. There were gauze balls crammed between his fingers like when his mama used to give herself a pedicure, and bandages draped across the front and back of his hands.
John didn’t do any scraping, but he’d sometimes change those bandages or fiddle with the bag taped to the wall or the needle in Tim’s arm.
He came to at one point to the smell of chili and cheese. John was lying on the couch, a massive plate of nachos on his chest. The coffee table was covered in crumpled tinfoil and the remains of what looked like burritos and enchiladas.
“Hey there,” John called. “Lunch time. Want a chip?”
Tim shook his head. Normally he loved Tex-Mex, but with how much his hands still hurt, the smell was making him kind of sick to his stomach.
At his refusal, John shrugged. “More for me, then. You could stand to lose a pound or two, anyway.”
“Nothing else to eat? Going to starve me?”
John rolled his eyes. “Nobody starves in twenty-four hours, and you’re getting nutrition through your IV anyway.” Apparently he didn’t want any backtalk, because he turned the volume on the TV way up. DeNiro boxing movie. Tim had seen it before but couldn’t remember the name. One of the characters landed a punch – not that great a form, shoulder’d hurt like a bitch if you did it that way over and over – and the crunch and splatter rang through the room.
Smirking, John said, “Damn, this is a cinematic masterpiece. Good thing Will’s down for the count, because otherwise he’d come barreling out here for me to turn it off. For some silly reason –” John turned his gaze on Tim, and Tim had to forcefully hold back from shivering at the chill that went through him. “For some strange reason, he can’t watch this film. In the AFI Top Ten for two decades, and he won’t watch it. It’s a fucking shame.”
They watched it for a while, Tim trying to get lost in the story so he could forget for a second about the pain – which kept taking sharp, jerky dips – and the crazy man on the couch and what the fuck the company was going to do Tim for this and the oh, so fucking disgusting smell of the best food in the world.
“Why’re you doing this?” he finally said.
“‘You,’ as in Will and me?” John asked, taking his attention away from the movie. “Or ‘you,’ just me? I need to know who you mean so I can tell what you mean.”
Tim grunted. “Will and you, treating me.”
“Will’s doing it because he needs to be needed. Even by pieces of shit like you.” John scooted around on the couch until he was lying flat on his back, staring at the ceiling. His legs were flung across one arm of the couch and were dangling down the side. Gangly bastard.
“As for why I’m doing it – doing all of it, I mean, not treating you,” John continued, “that’s an interesting question.”
“Why are you?”
John was silent for a moment, maybe deciding whether to answer or not, and then his words came out quick and strong, like machine gun fire in slow motion. “Because Wilson won’t take his pound of flesh, and I can’t kill myself. The current’s not strong enough, and my fucking body won’t forget how to swim. Because I’d really like some day to watch Raging Bull with my best friend and to go a whole blissful year without being woken up to the sound of screams. Because Bette didn’t know how to care for her son and my dad’s a son of a bitch. Because Mycroft should have been strangled in the womb.”
John snorted. “Am I making any fucking sense? Probably not, I had to baby-sit some dipshit last night and didn’t get a lot of sleep.” He rolled to a seated position, grabbed his cane, and headed for the bathroom.
Tim pulled against the restraints on his ankles and found them as tight as ever. “You’re nuts,” he called after John.
John poked his head back around the door. “You’re ugly.” He disappeared and Tim heard the sounds of a toilet being used. He closed his eyes and tried to think of anything but being here.
More skin scraping, more repeats of the Willie Nelson album, more jolts and tremors of pain. John never did clean up the remains of lunch, so the room stank of cheese, beef, and enchilada sauce the whole day.
Tim heard whispers and murmurs periodically, but nothing that would clue him in to what would happen next. John had said twenty-four hours and then they’d take him home, but who knew? People were born to lie.
A sudden and deafening ripping sound startled Tim out of a doze. John waved the plastic IV bag and shouted, “Wakey wakey! Time to go.”
Will was struggling with the knots in the restraints around Tim’s ankles. “What did you do to these?” he asked John.
“Just cut them and let’s go. We’ve got a four-hour drive and I don’t want to spend a minute more in this punk’s presence than we have to.”
“Did you check us out?” Will asked as he carefully tried to ease a knife into the middle of a large knot.
“Way past check-out time, and you and I are coming back here anyway.” John pushed Will back, grabbed the knife out of the knot, and made a forceful slash that severed the bandage.
“Why would we come back here?” Will’s hands were on his hips, and he looked ready for a fight, but Tim was more interested in trying to stretch some circulation back into his ankles.
Thrusting the IV bag into Will’s chest, John moved around behind the rollway bed, out of Tim’s line of sight. “To get the car. When I went out earlier, I rented us one for the Ithaca trip. In case there’s a Pulp Fiction type incident, I don’t want to have to wipe gray matter off my own upholstery.”
“What are you –” Will’s eyes went wide. “Oh, no. No. Where did you get that? Why do you have it?”
“Yes. None of your business. And, for protection.”
Hearing a distinct click, Tim strained to look around, but he couldn’t see John at all.
“You having that gun is the stupidest idea ever,” Will said, shaking his head.
“Really? Nothing stupider ever happened in the history of forever?”
Tim was about to open his mouth and reply when he felt a hard rod nudge the back of his head. “Up and at ’em,” John said coldly. “I’d rather you lived, but I’ve got no qualms about making you die.”
“I have qualms!” Will insisted, throwing his hands in the air.
“That’s why you’re driving and not holding the gun.” The gun nudged Tim again. “Get up.”
Tim’s legs were stiff, and moving his arms made him nauseous again, but he made it to the car without too much trouble, Will following a short distance behind with the IV bag.
As Tim fell into the backseat, the first thing he saw was John already in the front passenger seat, keeping the gun steadily trained at Tim’s head. Will poked around near the ceiling for a few minutes, the found a little coat hook to hang the IV bag from. Just before he closed Tim’s door, he injected something into the tube.
“What’d you give me?” Tim asked, as Will settled into the driver’s seat.
“Last dose of sedative,” John said. “Told you: I don’t want a minute more with you than I have to bear.”
Tim caught a look at Will’s brown eyes when he checked the rear-view mirror before pulling out of the space. Windows to the soul, somebody once said, but Tim couldn’t see a damn thing in them.
John put his left hand on Will’s right shoulder, clasping it amiably. He then steadied the gun on top so it was aimed directly at Tim’s head.
Great. Trapped in a car with a crazy babbo and incomprehensible Will. John’s words came back to him: All kinds of things might happen to a man when he’s unconscious. He struggled to stay awake over the next few minutes, but the cotton claimed him.
“Seriously … what were … forward …”
Words and silences. Fragments of dreams cracking, falling, and misting around his feet like dry ice.
“… c’mon … can’t … dangerous …”
The smell of a new car, and Lordy be, someone had found the good shit, because the pain was down to the very dull roar of steady propellers, moving them through the atmosphere.
Tim was awake. Will was yelling in whispers again.
“– got to think things through, the long-term consequences of your actions. You disabled a man!”
“It was an accident.” Party line, same thing John had said for the past however many hours, but this time it sounded like he was honestly trying to be convincing.
“Uh huh. I did my best with those burns, but there’s going to be extensive scarring, and no way will he get all his function back. It’s going to be a permanent disability.”
“Yeah, life sucks. He’ll still be able to eat, though, and watch sports, and just about all the shit he liked to do before.”
“He can’t work with his hands like that!”
“True. Very true. And I have to tell you how broken up I was at the prospect that a guy who beats people for a living wouldn’t be able to work any more. It tore my fucking heart out, really.”
Silence for a moment.
“Oh. So can I expect more accidents in the future?”
“You got any more subordinates engaged to someone related to someone who dates mob goons?”
“I don't think so.”
“We’re safe then. Hey, Tweedle.”
Tim thought about playing possum, but he opened his eyes instead. He couldn’t see the gun, but John’s grin was there in profile.
“He’s awake?” Will asked, surprised.
“You knew he was awake?”
“Of course. Tweedle, I got a question for you. What was the deal with the lighter fluid?”
Tim locked gazes with John in the rear-view mirror. John’s eyes were blue; the teeth in his grin looked like regular people teeth.
He was still fucking frightening.
“It was an accident.”
John nodded. “Good boy. Now give us directions for where we should drop you. We’re only five miles out of Ithaca.”
They pulled up outside of Tim’s doctor’s office about twenty minutes later.
“Kaiser Permanente?” Will asked. “Mobsters use HMOs?”
“A front,” Tim said. “My hands hurt.”
Nobody paid that any attention. Will kept looking up at the sign while John took out the IV needle and helped Tim onto the sidewalk.
“Y’all take care now, y’hear?” John drawled as he slapped Tim on the back, as if they were pals, parting after a good time together.
Tim was flinching from the itching, from the pain, and closed his eyes for a brief moment. When he opened them, John was back in the car, looking the other direction, and it was brown-eyed Will staring at Tim.
“Your fly’s open,” Will said, and drove off while Tim was checking.
“You never sought revenge?” Tracy finds this to be the most unbelievable aspect of the entire story. “By your beliefs, the kidnapping of Dr. Y to teach Dr. X a lesson was perfectly justified. That would make their assault on you an unwarranted attack.”
“Assault? All Dr. Y did was treat my wounds until I could get back to my own doctor.”
“Causing you a great deal of pain.”
Tim shrugs and then lightly wipes his gloved palms against each other in a move that seems unconscious. “Burn care’s always painful. My doctor said he did a damn good job – saved me some skin that I might have lost otherwise. No, Dr. Y didn’t do anything but help me.”
Tracy leans forward. “And Dr. X?”
His gaze distant, Tim sits in silence for a moment, his palms still in his lap but his right knee jiggling. Tracy is just about to prompt him again when he stops and looks her right in the eye. “Dr. X,” he says, “was like that babbo I told you about: so messed up, so damaged, that anything you’d do to him would pretty much be a relief. Leaving him to his life was revenge enough.”
His eyes are blue, not grey, but still they give Tracy the impression of flint. This is a man she’ll never understand, and she can’t wait to be done with him.
Tim smiles as if he can read her mind, and Tracy suppresses a shudder. “Besides,” he says, looking up at the pleasant young woman who just came in to deliver his pills, “the lighter fluid was an accident.”