Usually, you go unconscious, that’s what happens in the movies anyway. I’ve never been so lucky. I’d been beaten up by thugs, shook down by sadistic bullies and on one memorable occasion left to a dominatrix’s artistic license in a locked, soundproofed basement. It was cathartic, that last one. One thing that had never happened to me was being beaten so senseless that I passed out and had to be revived with the stereotypical bucket of water to the face. Who keeps buckets handy these days anyway?
This pain should have made me pass out, I didn’t need to remember it, and the dull ache that was left over in my sweat soaked pours wasn’t so much a relief as it was a slow realization that the pain had stopped, for the most part. Dawn was creeping its slow, pale fingers up the stained glass and it was over. I looked to my right hand and wiggled my fingers, they moved. I shook my legs, one after the other, both moved enough in their restraints to let me know they were there. I still couldn’t feel much; I think my nerves had been so fried by coming back that it would take a while before they started registering again.
The door opened, and a doctor came in shadowed by the same nun who had cut off my morphine the night before.
“Good morning Mister Greer.” The doctor said. “How are you feeling?”
“Tired, worn out and numb all over.”
The nun frowned, “I am always amazed that ‘thankful’ never comes up when I ask that question.”
The doctor coming in behind her laughed, “Perhaps if we were severely injured to the point where we had to spend the night with Sister Charlene we would know?”
“Forgive me, Mister Greer, Doctor, it was not my place to say such a thing. The lack of sleep has driven the wits from my head.”
“Oh?” I asked.
The doctor nodded as he unstrapped my right arm, “Yes. You were quite the screamer. Hours and hours and the worst of it after two in the morning, which was, oh, almost 4 hours ago. Very unusual. Are you sure you didn’t have anything else wrong with you?”
“Maybe she was laundering my dirty soul as well as putting my limbs back on?”
The nun blushed and hid her face.
The doctor worked his way around to my legs, which were still not feeling much at all. “We have had many cases of people who were missing two or more limbs. They didn’t scream as much as you did and yours just had to be reattached. The whole process should have taken three, four hours in total. A full limb regrowth is usually five hours. You have the distinction of being the record holder, William.”
“Please, call me Billy.” I said as the doc shifted my legs off the table. “William is an old man’s name.”
“Did you ever go by ‘Will’?”
I shook my head.
“Funny how some end up ‘Bill’ and others ‘Will’ isn’t it? Come on, give me your hand, and I’ll help you get up.”
I swung my freed right arm over, and the doctor grabbed it and pulled me to my feet. Something wasn’t right, I couldn’t stand on my own and swayed a bit. He steadied me, and the eyebrows rose on his face, “You must have had something else. The only time I had unstable people was when they had been an amputee for so long that they needed to relearn to walk.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, doc, but I feel like dog shit right now.”
“Language!” Sister Anne said after a swift intake of breath.
“Sister Anne, let’s get Mister Greer to the car.”
“What? I can’t stay here and recover some more?”
“The room is booked, Mister Greer.” The doctor said with authority that would brook no argument. The two led me down the corridor past a small lobby where a Hispanic couple and their baby were waiting, the woman smiled hesitantly at me, and I tried to put on a happy face to let her know I was okay. She didn’t run shrieking, but her face told me I didn’t do as well as I thought.
The Doctor beckoned to a young nun, and she grabbed a wheelchair, which they lowered me into. Back down the corridor behind me, a cleaning crew rushed into the room to give the room a quick scrubbing before the next God fearing, worthy person, i.e. – ‘customer,' was led in.
Sister Mary got stuck with wheeling me out. “Who’s the next sickie?”
“The child has Cystic Fibrosis.”
“And a wealthy family, I’m betting.”
The nun stopped the wheelchair so quickly I almost fell forward out of it. She came around to the front of it, squatted down and looked me in the eyes; it was terrifying. “Mister Greer, I am short of sleep and short of temper this morning, and if I say something offensive to you, I apologize in advance. That baby doesn’t have a wealthy ‘sponsor,' he doesn’t know anyone, no one vouched for him, and no one is paying or donating anything for the time he is going to spend in with Charlene this morning. God is good and righteous, and the poor are as deserving – no! More deserving of the Lord’s aid than the wealthy.”
She pulled in a deep breath and continued, “We serve the wealthy, yes. And their contributions to the coffers go a long way towards helping others with more worldly needs. This morning we are helping one child. When we have a paid session, for every four hours we can feed and provide clean water for a hundred children for a year or more. Many of these kids are the orphans of war or tragedy, some of whom live here, with only our poor guidance to serve them. Where do we draw the line? We do the best we can, aiding as many people as we can, but I will not have you disparage our work as profiteering!”
I shrank back into the chair and nodded, “I am sorry Sister Mary. I spoke out of turn and all I can offer as an excuse it that the experience was not what I was expecting. I am tired, I hurt, and I need twenty hours of sleep, but that doesn’t excuse my snide remarks or thoughts this morning. Please accept my apology.”
Her face remained stern for a moment longer then fell, and she nodded, “Of course. I understand. You are a strange case, Mister Greer. Most come out feeling refreshed and with no need of sleep or nourishment at all.” Her forehead wrinkled, “I don’t know why you should be different.”
“My mother always said I was a pain in the…behind.” I offered.
“I understand most mothers say that to their children, but perhaps yours was right?”
I smiled, and she went back around to push me out of the building. A limousine was waiting for me there. It had government plates, and the chauffeur was waiting to open the door for me. He also had to help me out of the chair and into the vehicle.
“Let me walk about a little, huh?” I asked him.
“Sure.” He said, grasping my left arm.
I took a few tentative steps, then shook free of his arm and walked to the trunk of the car and back, trailing my hand on the car as I went. I was still, but the numbness was wearing off. I was irked that I still required his help to bend down and get into the back of the vehicle, his face was a stone wall, displaying not the littlest hint of…anything.
Aside from a small box sitting on one of the seats, the back of the car was empty. I was a little at a loss as to what the guy was doing here. I had expected a ride back, but something less ostentatious.
“Hey, bub, why the fancy car?” I asked once we were underway.
“Sir, there is a press conference set up for 9 this morning with the governor. I understand they wish to show the public that you have been taken care of.”
“Ah, will I have to speak?”
“Probably. I know the governor will be making a speech and someone from the FBI will be discussing the ongoing gang war with the cartels.”
“You’ve been briefed. So you can brief me, huh?” I asked.
“A few words have been prepared for you, they are in the cabinet over the refrigerator. I was told you would not be hungry or thirsty, but, sir, if you don’t mind my saying you look like you could use some coffee, if not a drink. Help yourself to anything you can find back there.”
“How tight is our timetable this morning?”
“We have about half an hour leeway.”
“I need coffee more than booze.” I said looking the contents of the small refrigerator over.
“It will have to come from a convenience store if you want it soon, I don’t recall passing a coffee shop since I left Auroria. The box has your personal effects from the hospital. Your clothing wasn’t salvageable.”
“Convenience store coffee is fine by mean, anything with some kick in it. I hope they will have something for me to wear.”
“I’ll call ahead to make certain that is taken care of, though I suspect it has been.”
“Yeah, whoever is putting this on doesn’t seem like the type to miss that loose end. Thanks. What’s your name?”
“Thank you, James.”
“You’re welcome. Two minutes until we get to the gas station.” James looked in the rearview mirror at me, “Do you mind if I ask you something?”
“Not at all.”
“What was it like?”
“Losing my arm and legs or healing or all of it?”
“It hurt. Initially having them cut off felt like a sharp, cold pain, but that went away pretty fast, and my stumps felt ‘warm.' Of course, I was pretty much out of it, I’m lucky the SCaCU guys always have a major trauma unit tailing them, or I might not have lived through it. Of course, given SCaCU’s job, maybe luck had nothing to do with that.”
“At the hospital, the first thing they did was put in a line and pump me full of fluids and happy juice. I recall signing a few things and a girl in blue trying to ask me some questions...and maybe I met with the governor?” I looked in the mirror to see if James knew.
“The press said you did, but it wasn’t on the news.”
“Thank God for that at least. I’m barely ‘photo-friendly’ on a good day. Anyway, my next cognizant thought was when I was almost to the retreat. The doctor they had me riding up with was explaining that he was tapering off my pain meds and I was going to be moved into the healing room.” I paused here and tried to collect my thoughts. “The Abbey...well, it was painful. The docs had reattached my limbs and the major blood veins, but as they wheeled me in they were still pumping in fluids to replace those I was bleeding out. I guess the doctors can’t sew up all the holes in only a few hours at the hospital, even with a whole team of them working on each limb…” My voice trailed off as I thought about who may have needed those teams of physicians more than me yesterday.
James must have taken my silence as the end of my story, and he asked, “Was it painful to heal? I’ve heard for limbs or parts of the body with nerves it is painful.”
“It was...worse than anything I can describe. I’m numb from it all now, James. Don’t get me wrong; using my arm and legs a day after they’ve been lopped off is great. I will not take them for granted again and I’ll be forever grateful it was politically expedient for the authorities to do this for me. This is one of those rare cases when doing what’s right falls in line with doing what the public wants. Good press for the police, for SCaCU, for the state. Everybody wins. Except Slice.”
The driver’s eyes looked up sharply at that last bit. I chose to say nothing and James kept his mouth shut too. The gas station near the exit was packed with morning commuters, and James asked how I liked my coffee.
“Easiest way to make it, I’ll be back quickly. My number is on the dash, call it if you have any...trouble.”
“Call it? With what?”
He pointed at the box on the seat beside me, I still hadn’t investigated it. My body felt wrung out and trampled upon. I wanted to sleep, not spout PR for a popular politician who didn’t need the good press anyway. “I’m an ingrate, that’s all there is to it. I should be up there praising the establishment, not grudgingly going along with them. They could have let me take my chances with the reattachment surgery.” My phone started to vibrate in the box.
“Focus.” I said, digging through my meager pocket treasures to get at my phone. I didn’t even look who was calling but flicked it to connect I said, “Hello?”
“Is this Mister Greer?”
“Yeah, who is this?”
“Patricia Walsh. I’m an aide to the governor, and I wanted to talk to you before you arrived. You are in route, correct?”
I thought about saying we had stopped for coffee, but just mumbled, “Yeah, almost on the highway.”
“Good. First, let me say thank you for coming to appear with Governor Black. Let’s go over your sizes for the clothing I have picked up for you.”
The next few minutes we exchanged numbers and colors over the phone, and she took pains to assure me the clothing was being provided ‘gratis.' I guess somebody had run my credit report. After that, she said, “Do you have any questions?”
“I understand I am supposed to talk.”
“A few short words. The driver should have given you a copy of some prepared statements if you cannot think of something appropriate to say.”
“He did, I haven’t looked at them yet. What do they consist of?”
“They are very basic, no one expects you to give a long winded speech after what you have gone through.”
“So keep it short.”
“That would be a good idea, yes. Anything else?”
I saw James coming back to the car. “No, that about covers it. Thank you, Patricia.”
“Have a safe trip, Mister Greer, I look forward to meeting you soon.”
“Likewise.” I disconnected as James opened the back door and leaned in to hand me my coffee. As he did so, his jacket fell open and revealed a large sidearm. He had set a cup of coffee on the roof of the car before he opened the door and handed me the coffee from his hand, then reached up and thrust the other cup at me as well.
“Both are about three quarters full. I thought getting two would be better than running short.”
“Nothing for you?”
I noticed more things about him as he stood there to let me take the second cup. His clothing hung slightly loose on him, his stomach was extraordinarily flat. His jacket collar was stiff and high, higher than a normal shirt collar.
“Thanks.” I said taking the last coffee.
“You said black, so I didn’t bring anything to spice it up with, but I’m sure there is sugar and dry creamer in the condiments tray beside the fridge if you change your mind.”
“Black is good, thanks.”
James got back into the car and soon he was pulling out onto the highway. As we merged into the non-existent traffic, I noticed a black sports utility vehicle pulling onto the road behind us. I helped myself to the pastries it the bar fridge and to the prepared statements as well. It was the usual politically correct sort of stuff in three flavors. One was mere humility and gratitude, another was far less humble, but still gracious and the third was a fire and brimstone statement that seemed to fit the current governor’s political aims. I chose the third to memorize a few select lines from, what can I say? Biting the hand that feeds you is a dangerous business, and my stomach was full of a night of favors I otherwise never would have had but for the governor.
After a half hour of this, I looked out the back window to see the black SUV still tailing us.
“There’s a black sports utility that been following us since we got onto the highway.”
His answer was measured, “Why do you think he is following us?”
“Because we’re in a limo, the only things slower are tractors, semis and full on recreational vehicles. He should have passed us already on some of these hills.”
“Don’t be concerned about him, Mister Greer, he’s with us.”
“The governor sent a security detail down with you to collect me?”
“You’re not part of the SWAT team are you?”
“In a way.”
“I win the bet. Yes, there is a containment team here.”
I let his statement ride between us for a few moments, he hadn't confirmed he was with SCaCU. “So it’s not over.”
“It seemed like a prudent precaution. Did you think Leonard was acting alone?”
“He wasn’t. But how do you know that?”
“A second grader would know that.”
“So this is just political expedience this morning? Smoke and mirrors to keep the plebs pacified?”
“You talk like someone who has attended college, Mister Greer.”
“I have a lot of time to do crosswords in my business. What was the bet?”
“I bet you would figure out we were SCaCU before we hit Auroria.”
“The stakes.” I asked.
“Steak. Literally, steak, at Vitellos.” James answered.
“Why there?” He had named the high priced Italian place that was also run by the mob, which I am sure he knew.
“It seemed appropriate, given your past.”
I nodded, law enforcement personnel have an almost tragic sense of irony. “So...about this dog and pony show?”
James glanced at me in the rearview mirror, then leaned over and punched something on the dash of the car. A music station flared up and permeated the car, a moment later it quieted down, and James said, “Recordings are off for the time being. We can talk in the clear until we arrive at our destination. Do you understand?”
“So have you picked out some words to give the crowd when your big moment comes?”
I nodded and started, “I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the governor for all he has done in cleaning up the state…”
James smiled, “That was the one we were hoping for. Are you going to speak it verbatim?”
“Unless you have any additions?”
“No, do you have it memorized already?”
“I have a good memory. I’ll be as rousing as I can, don’t worry.”
“I’m not; you will do fine.”
"Spoken like someone who isn't going to be up in front of hundreds of people with a half dozen cameras stuck in his face."
"Hundreds?" James asked, "Half-dozen?" He shook his head for a moment. "Mister Greer, I think you have underestimated the, uh, public's concern about this incident. We're going to Keer's Field, there will be a crowd. Most larger news outlets will have a presence."
Keer's Field? How badly have I estimated this event? The newly built baseball field could seat twenty thousand. "Is that so? I think I'm going to be sick now."
"You'll do fine. There is liquor in the cabinet."
I nodded once to James in the rearview and slumped back in my seat. Dog and Pony show is the right word for this. The governor, facing re-election in 8 months is using me as part of his campaign, though he hardly needs it. I glanced up at James again, he was focused on driving, but glanced up at me and smiled. And SCaCU wants him re-elected. I closed my eyes and started to doze off. James was large and muscular; his body was...alluring. With a start, I woke up fully. What the hell? This was no time to be having unwanted fantasies; the thoughts that had gone traipsing through my head were like the start of a seedy porn flick.
With a cold sweat, I realized something else James must have seen my expresson too because he asked, "Are you okay? The speech will go fine, you can practice it if you want, I'll give you pointers..."
I shook my head, tearing my eyes from his chiseled, masculine face.
"No," I mumbled, "I got it, I just...remembered something I forgot."
"Anything I can help with?"
"That would be, uh, it's unrelated to all of this. I got an appointment I missed, like a date."
"With your girl? Say the word, and I'll invite her to be at the stadium, it would look good too."
He wanted to help, I wanted him off my back. Ruby would be pissed, but inside she would be pleased. Hell, it might do my chances with her some good too, if she sees I'm a rising star, maybe she would commit. "Only if she says she wants to. I don't want her there all...bitchy."
"I'm on it." James nodded, "We'll ask nicely."
He got on the speaker phone, leaving me in peace for a moment with the soundproof partition up. He never asked who my girlfriend was, he never asked for her number; someone had done their homework. I had bigger problems, much bigger. I'd take the case for Slice, I'd made a deal with him to find the children, no that wasn't it, I'd taken the case to find out what the Ramos family was doing with the children. I'd accepted the deal, even if Slice had me bent over a barrel, my shine had taken hold, I'd seen a path through the woods towards my next goal, then he cut me. Now, a day later, my shine was gone. I couldn't see the path anymore.