The snow fell crooked on Christmas Eve, blowing this way and that into every available gap, every orifice and cranny, swirling about and refusing to settle. Every time the doors to the emergency ward slid open to let someone in, a cat’s worth of snow would leap into the entranceway and dance in the air a while, as though animated not by the wind, but some impish inner will.
The doors never slid open to let someone out. One man had tried to escape that way, earlier in the day, deciding after seven hours waiting that maybe it wasn’t really that infected. But when he got to within three feet of those doors, he slipped on a puddle of melted snow and came down hard, twisting his ankle as he did a frantic dance to stay upright, and bruising his tailbone as he hit the floor.
The doors slid open after he fell – not to let anyone in, except some wind and snow, but almost as if to mock him. He was a middle-aged, business-looking man in an expensive suit; even as he fell, he hadn’t let go of his briefcase. His name was Martin, he said, and he sounded something between wistful and resigned as he thanked the young man. Henry wondered, as he helped drag the man off to the side, what a money-looking guy like that was doing, coming to a hospital like this. Maybe – like Henry himself – he was new to the city, and hadn’t known better. Or maybe the only money he really had was in his suit, his haircut and his briefcase.
The businessman was obviously embarassed. When he’d announced his departure – the only words he’d spoken since his arrival – he had, in a fit of bravado, given away his little ticket. His eyes briefly met the eyes of the woman he’d given it to, and then slid hurriedly away again, his face turning almost as red as his infected thumb. Massively fat and vaguely moustached, the woman sat around a pile of Christmas shopping like a silent brood-hen, and glared down anyone who even thought of sitting near her with those bulbous, wide and yellow eyes.
“I’ll go grab you a new one,” said Henry, patting the businessman gently on the shoulder and smiling. He was just glad to have something to do, and help him stay awake. The taxi driver had told him, as he’d dropped him off at the entrance, “Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep.” And Henry could swear he’d heard laughter as the man had pulled away – that had worried him more than the warning itself.
He threaded his way down the crowded hallway, up to the nurses’ station, almost tripping over a chubby, pasty little boy on a leash. The other end of the leash was tied to the leg of a gurney where an old man lay moaning periodically; but whether the boy actually belonged to the old man, or had just been left leashed there for convenience, Henry couldn’t tell. The boy, who looked about four, was trying unsuccessfully to untie the knot; the old man was using the flaps of his hospital gown to fan his left testicle, which was swollen to about the size of a butternut squash. Overhead, the fluorescent lights flickered and popped, adding no warmth to the cold winter corridors.
As Henry pulled a new ticket from the red plastic dispenser – B-23, it said – the frosted glass window of the nurses’ station slid angrily open, and a nurse with a ferrety, suspicious face looked out. “I know you,” she said. “You already took a ticket, hours ago.”
“It’s not for me,” said Henry, looking past her. Inside the room, he could see gold and silver tinsel, several open cartons of eggnog, and – just before the nurse slid the window hurriedly closed – what looked suspiciously like a nurse perched on the lap of a man in a Santa suit, fake beard dangling half-off, and either whispering in his ear or giving him a hickey.
“A-92,” came the woman’s voice, distorted over the intercom: “Now serving A-92.” The digital display above the frosted window, which had previously sat at “B-11,” flipped over accordingly. Henry wondered again, as he checked his crumpled stub, if they were pulling numbers at random or working some arcane system of triage.
Down the corridor to his right, over by the washrooms, there was an excited commotion and a round of applause as a man stood up, yelling, “Me! That’s me!” and waving his ticket in the air. He was a small, cherubic looking East-Indian man with a pair of oversized tortoiseshell glasses on his face and his big toe in a ziploc baggy, and he beamed happily as he limped carefully past everyone in that stretch of corridor, accepting people’s congratulations with a gracious, “Thank you! Thank you! Merry Christmas. Yes, you too – than you very much.” He even grabbed Henry’s hand and squeezed it happily as he passed him, causing Henry to wince in excruciating pain – the man had grabbed the hand with the pieces of glass still stuck in it. Luckily the little man was too caught up in his excitement to notice, Henry would’ve hated to spoil his moment.
The reinforced metal doors swung open just enough to let the one man through. He turned around in the entranceway, pumped his fist victoriously in the air, and started to yell, “Merry Chris—” when the burly hand of an orderly reached out through the doorway, clapped down on his shoulder, and yanked him through. The door closed and the lock turned with a click.
Henry looked at the source of the noise. It was a man, another patient, hunched down in a leather jacket, showing not much more than a mass of brown hair and denim knees. He massaged a deck of cards in his hands, Henry saw, caressing it back and forth over itself. One, two and then three cuts, he drew the top half from the bottom in a gentle pulling motion, a temporary string of cards trailing before they snapped neatly back into his right hand. Three times he flicked it under the left-hand stack, and after the cuts he fanned out half the deck in each hand, spread out for a moment like a bow of faded red bicycles, and then threw them into one another to shuffle. He did this repeatedly, unthinking. It wasn't until Henry got closer that he saw how impressive this feat actually was. The third finger of the man's left hand ended at the first knuckle in a bandage, crusty and brown where it was taped badly to his hand. The edges of the cards, he saw, had similar stains, and some fresher crimson ones as well.
"Jesus, what happened to you?"
"Divorce," he said.
"Usually they just take your money."
The man chuckled once in a quick burst, and not as bitterly as Henry might have expected. One corner of the shaggy fellow's mouth curled into a smirk, and he lifted his head an inch.
"Henry," Henry said, and held out his right hand for a moment, before remembering the painful squeeze of just a few minutes before. He put it down and jerked out his left even as he noted his new friend's similar incapacity. He put both his arms down awkwardly.
The other patient only began cutting and shuffling again. "You can call me Wolfman, I guess. Everyone else does." He cocked his chin to think for a moment, fingers and palms on automatic. "You lucky in love, Henry?"
"You want to find out?" He looked around. "We're going to be here awhile. I can tell you."
"I guess I--"
"Excellent!" Wolfman finally looked at him, right in the eyes, and grinned. Henry could see how he earned the nickname. His hair was pulled back, not very effectively, from his face in a fuzzy brown knot, and the rest of it trailed haphazardly down his wide back. Smiling, his face assumed a triangular shape, with a broad, tanned forehead and a narrow jaw that was filled with fierce white teeth. He was strikingly handsome, and a loose, unpredictable charm seemed to hang around him like a scent. Henry was glad he was smiling. His long-fingered hands sped up with their motions. "Say when."
"Um, okay. When."
Abruptly, he stopped, and flipped the top card off of the left pile with his first two fingers. He pointed his face up at the fluorescents like they were the moon, shoulders heaving. "Oh man." He whimpered a little.
"Hey! What card is it?"
Wolfman handed it to him. The jack of hearts.
"So I'm lucky in love? Hearts are love, right?"
Wolfman wiped the corner of his eye. "Shit man, let's think about this. You've got the eleven card, let's start there. Odd number, and prime. The kings and queens, they're special in their obvious way. And yeah, the jacks are the lovable assholes of the gang, and they get some tail for sure, but that's not what we're saying here, we've got that one little guy, all alone. The prick." He looked at Henry knowingly. "The jack."
Henry sat down next to Wolfman in the next vinyl chair. "Long, lonely night, I take it." Henry thought of the nurses' party, and imagined he could hear the giggling all the way from here. He held up his own bleeding appendage. "And I'm not even left-handed."
Wolfman patted his shoulder. "Could be worse."
Some of the other patients were murmuring on the other side of the room. Henry saw that Walter had joined the group past him, and all of them were following their conversation from afar.
Henry blushed, but Wolfman grew expansive. He reached with his good hand into the inside pocket of his leather jacket, and pulled out a bottle of schnapps. He held both arms wide, as if expecting a hug. "Gonna be a long lonely night for all of us, looks like. You all want to hear about 'lucky in love?'" He shook the bottle. It was full.
Henry reached for it. "I'll have a pull, um, so to speak. What the hell." Behind him, the other patients shuffled tentatively closer. The man with the swollen balls moaned somewhere behind, but Henry didn't look at him. He didn't want to think about where a lonely night would end up.
Wolfman was not, strictly speaking, playing with a full deck. He was no more insane than your typical carnie, mind you, no more poorly grounded than your everyday roadie, occupations which would dot his lengthy resume if he'd bother to write one. No, his psychological profile didn't contain anything more defective than a mild obsession and compulsion, which in Wolfman's case, added to his overall rough mystique. He had a habit (you couldn't really call it a nervous habit, but it fit that sort of role) of manipulating, shuffling and working a pack that he always kept unbound in one of his jacket pockets. He'd learned all the hand motions during a brief career as a con artist (quit because he found his spirit was too generous for fleecing rubes), and had evolved it into a sort of lifelong tarot cult. Some people prayed to the gods--Jesus and Santa, because hey, it was the season--for meaning and guidance, but Wolfman's patron spirits occupied the deck. In the hijinks between the kings and knaves, lucky sevens and trusting fours, passionate hearts and cold diamonds, he could learn a little about himself and the people he touched. Lithographed nudes rode velocipedes on their red backs, and their powers grew stronger as the deck was broken in. When they revealed themselves in a significant way, Wolfman would retire them, which was why he didn't usually have all fifty-two. Once they had their say they were done, at least for that round. (The bloodstained deck he was currently working through, had taken him through this story, and it had turned out to be particularly powerful.) Not a full deck at all.
The carnival had been a brief affair, as all the jobs were, embarked because he impressed the cast with his dexterity. He'd done some card tricks for a show on that gig, and sometimes, on the side, would read people with them. He had strict rules for his personal deck. Red bicycle cards for one, and he'd only read for the people who interested him, whose lives would in some way affect his own. (Henry beamed a little at this part.) This was somewhat annoying for the carnival management, but to Wolfman this was no con: he believed completely in his powers of discernment, and thought it was only through his own semi-divine patrons he could get a glimpse of others' lives. Usually he'd offer a few a night for a fee, and with the modest percentage the owners pried out of it, they didn't make too much complaint.
The difficulty in the situation was with the fortune-teller already in the carnival's employ. The woman was a complete fraud, as much Gypsy as the Pope, as much crone as a pop diva, with latex warts and a plastic crystal ball. But she had been something of a scholar of the cards, and for this reason he interested her. Did Wolfman know, she'd go on, that there were originally a great deal more trumps? Did he know their significance? How coins and cups turned to diamonds and hearts? How they reflected the Zodiac, the thousand formal rules for how they talked to each other? Wolfman knew precisely zero of this esoteric nonsense, and moreover, he thought it was the was the most abject bullshit. He was too honest to not share this opinion, and he had to admit, he got a rise from knocking her off her perch. Unlike the crusty trumps in that moldy box, Wolfman had gotten to know the souls of his own suits, the numina of his numbers. What did formal rules matter when you had that connection? He'd worked out his own system, using common knowledge, a rudimentary numerology, and gut instinct, but unlike hers, it worked. What did an education have on that?
Their discussions got more heated and more frequent, and, perhaps inevitably, the rows gave way to violent passions. It should probably be noted that the fortune teller was married to the owner's brother. Lucky in love. Wolfman's career in the carnival business lasted about six months. On the day he ran, she tried to read him a fraudulent fortune. "Stay," she pleaded, practically moaning at him. That evening he turned over two cards of his own: the three of spades--a violent plot was starting to gel (spades as violence, as swords, he'd gotten on his own, and he took three to signify conspiracy)--and the ten of clubs--the card he'd come to associate with his own identity (great symmetry, easily underestimated, and he liked the black shamrocks for his brand of backhanded luck). It was time to go, and he did.
(But what happened to the finger, someone asked. What about those bloody Christmas cards? Pass that bottle.)
You could call this one a Christmas story. Start dates are as arbitrary as anything else in the constant rhythm of reshuffling and captured tricks and bad hands that life deals and deals again. There's a sort of universality to Christmas though, even to unbelievers, as the season descends down in late November. Probably it had something to do with the weather in these parts, the cold chasing the last wisps of an urban autumn away about then, but more likely it was because it's the only time of year that was really celebrated in the public square. Lights invade every staid storefront, garlands hang from lamp posts, seedy men dolefully ring bells on street corners, one bender away from being the very drunken bum that your nickel purports to save.
Christmas wasn't the beginning of his tale, but that's when it all started to wrap up. He'd been shacked up with Gwendolyn for the better part of a year by then, and was feeling pressure to find a way out. That she had him gift-shopping showed a particular disregard for his character, and he looked at every intersection as a freeway elsewhere, even if a Canadian winter was a less than ideal setting for flight, and too, there were certain attachments.
He'd come to associate this lover with the queen of spades. It wasn't any ethnic slur, but that character was cold, judgemental, and imperious, the card as much as the person. The deck's royal families had their part to play in explaining the world of course, but few people captured regality as a personal signature. (Few people, Wolfman noted, really channeled the spirits of any of the cards for very long, borrowing them, at best, in context and for a time. It might be a long, lonely night, he told Henry, but he'd yet to meet anybody who had Jack riding his back for a lifetime.) She was tall and cold and lovely, with dark lidded eyes as languid and as dangerous as a jungle cat's, a rounded forehead of unblemished chocolate, a luscious plum-colored mouth, and nostrils that would flare or contract those rare times when emotion gripped her (or those less rare times when passion did). She favored heels, red, black and white clothing, and furs, looking like some alternate-universe Cruella De Vil. She dressed precisely, and unlike many people, she wore her attire, mastered it. The clothes succumbed to her will as much as people did. Even naked, she wore her skin exactly as she wanted. She regularly gave Wolfman cash, but he didn't quite understand what she did for a living. Even after he'd moved in, seen all the trappings of professionalism, and uncovered some hints (a bit late, as it turned out), she tried to keep him apart from any aspect of her daytime self.
Back when she was beginning to show some real interest in him (he was, after all, lucky in love), he let himself turn over an ace of diamonds and an eight of clubs. The ace signified subsistence, not altogether a bad thing, but the eight was interesting. An eight is an infinity turned ninety degrees--he'd be eating for a while, it looked like, which at the time was exactly what he wanted--but more than that the twisty eight of clubs meant complication, depth, structure and the aforementioned prickly luck. The eight of clubs signified a story, which was by its very nature irresistable. (He winked at the patients in the corridor.) He would see where this one would take him.
There was a third hand in play here as well, a sad but mostly unpredictable little third, loyal as beaten cub, and, paradoxically, as independent as a panther. She had a great deal to do with why Wolfman did anything as undignified as braving the domesticated holiday shopping crowd, and why, despite the growing dissatisfaction with his current 'employment,' he had yet to walk. Lupe spent most of her time boarded away in the States, toiling in a miserable succession of private schools for the gifted, for the truant, for the difficult, for the criminal. Gwendolyn would surely have kept the child away from her pet if she could have helped it, but she'd shown up one afternoon early in the relationship, and unlike Gwendolyn's hypothetical coworkers, business associates, or clients, her niece Lupe had the household dialed in as home base.
It was early in the relationship, and Wolfman was still forbidden from visiting when the queen was not at home. He preferred, however, to mark his own boundaries, and Gwendolyn had left a second-floor window unlocked, which was practically an invitation. He'd be sure not piss in the corners. At any rate, he was rummaging around the delicate knicknacks, pricey art, and immaculate fixtures, rattling door handles for search of a pantry. He heard some bottles clinking behind him, and turned, shoulders up and lips peeled back over his teeth.
A taunting voice came out of nowhere. 'Hungry?' it said.
Hell yes he was hungry.
'You don't look much like Aunt Gwen's usual sort of pet. Not tame enough. She must be getting bored."
Wolfman was shocked. 'Aunt Gwen?' It fit the mind about as well as Aunt Grendel or Uncle Vader. Empress Gwendolyn did not lend herself well to domestic informality.
'You don't look like you're robbing the place anyway.'
'I'm not. Well, not much. Where are you?'
Bottles again clicked behind him. He wheeled around to see a scruffy girl of about ten or eleven, decked out in sweats and pigtails. Her hair was as fuzzy by nature as his was by neglect, skin as dark by genetics as his was by the sun. She leaned a hip on the door frame, half predator and half prey, a beer in each hand.
'You're a little young for those,' he said. 'Much too young. I better take at least one.' He took both. 'Where's the fridge again? This place is huge.'
'Let me see your hand first,' she said. 'Other one.'
Wolfman held it out, the left. She grabbed it and twisted it about, looking the silver ring he was wearing, admiring it for some time. Finally she said, 'Cards and dogs, hey? She gave this to you. Pet.'
'Wolves,' he said. 'People call me Wolfman.'
'Yeah, and I'm Frankenstein.'
'Glad to meet you, Frankenstein.'
'Usually her pets are tamer.'
'You should stop calling me that.' He cracked the top on one of the bottles, looked around, and put the cap in his pocket.
Can I have a smoke?' She motioned to rectangular bulge in the pocket where he'd put the cap.
'Not even if these were cigarettes.' He pulled out the pack of Bicycles, and whipped them into a fluorish before returning them to their home. 'Cards,' he added unnecessarily.
'That explains the ring,' Lupe said, doing her best to sound unimpressed. Her voice got quieter, and less snappish. 'No cards on mine,' she held out her hand. A puppy fled a boot around her brown finger, bills and coins trailing from its guilty mouth. 'We're both pets.'
Wolfman asked if she was hungry, and together they ventured to the palace kitchen, a mass of stainless steel, gas, and gadgetry. Wolfman was impressed with the first two, although he found an egg cooker about as useless as a sandwich maker, and couldn't have told you which was which if he didn't read the labels. Wolfmen, he explained to Lupe, end up in food prep a lot more often than they end up as pets. He'd worked in the filthiest diners imaginable and in the finest restaurants, frying up pretty much the same slop, but one with wild boar instead of hamburger, one with truffle oil instead of ketchup. He yanked on the handle of Sub-Zero to reveal an arctic wasteland of empty shelves, the sterile and icy expanses dotted with a few lonely food debris. He pulled out some eggs and held them to the tip of his nose to inquisitively sniff them (Lupe laughed at this), and fished around for some onions (sprouting), some potatoes (likewise), rejected the fuzzy cold cuts, but explained to the girl how since cheese was moldy milk anyway, you could always cut off the green and eat it fine. Ever have a frittatta?
'Do you know how to play crazy eights?' she asked him as they waited for the eggs to set.
Wolfman laughed, 'I'd say I'm learning pretty fast.'
Gwendolyn found them perched around the kitchen counter about an hour later, giggling and flipping cards at each other (a borrowed deck, thank you very much, and perfectly safe), shouting to go fish and munching eggs. Her nostrils flared, in and out, for a good thirty seconds before she spoke. 'Back from school early, I see. Again. And answering the door. Please go to your room, I will call the adminstrators tomorrow.' Lupe gulped, and obeyed.
'She didn't answer--' Wolfman started, but Gwendolyn stilled him with an indrawn breath.
'As it happens, I am glad you are here. The shower is upstairs on the right. I will meet you there. Go.'
And so Wolfman added babysitter to his lengthy resume. Lupe came home every six to ten weeks for a week or so at a time, either for holiday or as some disciplinary action (she explained to Wolfman that she had a habit of telling her teachers exactly what she thought), and over the course of the year she had made a habit of sneaking away on weekends too, typically long ones, typically carefully engineered around whatever clues could be gleaned in advance about Gwendolyn's mysterious high-powered schedule. Lupe's school transactions were always done in cash, and the girl always managed to squirrel some for bus trips home.
Lupe's primary defense against authority was to outwit it, whether in a battle of trivia, or, more her style, in a showdown of sophistry. Wolfman was neither educated nor stupid (nor particularly authoritative), and he met Lupe's precocious banter with either sincere interest in the first case, or with a certain constitutional imperviousness in the second. He wasn't in the habit of elaborate thought, but, as has been mentioned, had a knack for calling bullshit, and in Lupe's case, although he enjoyed the hot-air balloon of quips, comebacks, and rationalizations that she could hoist, he had little difficulty deflating it when she got out of hand. On the other hand, he had a genuine curiousity about her endless supply of facts, and he liked a story as much as anyone, chuckling in appreciation at her tales of getting the best of her instructors. His interest in her intellectual world was so honest and childlike that Lupe found herself not unwilling to bamboozle him to the extent that she did her teachers and her aunt. Moreover, he would check the things that most piqued him, and took some enjoyment himself of making other people explain things, even when, especially when, he judged them to be dishonest. He did research for their conversations. Unlike line cook, online kook was a very rare occupation for Wolfmen, but he found himself digging into libraries (of all places!), and on Gwendolyn's home computer (without permission of course) for information from previous conversations, which would then start future ones. 'Did you know those Roman dudes didn't use stirrups on their horses?' 'How does carbon dioxide make the atmosphere warm?' 'What's insider trading, and what's the big deal about it?' When the school called Gwendolyn's household for the usual disciplinary reasons, Lupe always tried to arrange it when only Wolfman was in the house.
Gwendolyn at first resisted his guardian role, preferring to keep both her ward and her lover tightly compartmentalized, but given Lupe's unfortunate spontaneity, she soon found the convenience an unobtrusive, undocumented nanny irresistable. Just the same, the two usually conspired their weekends in advance, when Gwendolyn made it known with a few fifties that a paramour's services would not be required. (Usually he'd just grab a meal and stash the rest.) Lupe's eleventh birthday passed this way, evidently beneath the notice of the queen. Wolfman improvised (having no friends and having never had a birthday celebration himself). He pulled together some amusing trivia about the number eleven (he winked at Henry here), took her on a daylong romp among the autumn leaves in the park, and, at the end, they snuck back into the palace to deliver the elaborate cake he baked himself.
'Read me a fortune, Wolfman,' she said.
He shook his head. 'Fortune-telling's not where it's at. It only works like those stock market scams we were reading about, it only works because you already know a secret. So I don't tell fortunes.'
'Then what about--'
'Now, the cards are a little different. Not cheating at all, just a little thinking, and a lot of listening. Hell, life doesn't ever offer a lot of fortunes.' He looked around at the high ceilings, the art, the pristine floors and dust-free furniture. 'Not to most of us.'
'Who cares about money? What do the cards say about me?'
He looked so pained that Lupe thought he might whimper. 'I don't want to ask. This is nice.'
'It's my birthday.' She did her best puppy-dog impression, big brown eyes like needy oilslicks.
With a sigh, he pulled out the deck. 'Do you want to say when, Frankenstein?'
'But I still haven't--'
'I said when.'
'I'll give you three then, one for each second you could contain yourself.' He flicked a trio of suits onto the table. He looked at them. Scratched vigorously at the side of his head.
'Hard to say. We got two fours, I think the pair means me and you are attached, but fours are so, well, square. They're all innocent and strong, especially when they're together--it could mean my good influence,' they both laughed, 'or it could mean the cops or something. Fours aren't always bad, but I never trust them.' He scratched his scalp again, shaking out some flakes. 'And that five of diamonds is spiky and explosive, like claws. Man, it's a time bomb.'
'Time bomb,' she said. 'That's just what I asked for for Christmas!'
(About damn time you worked that in, one of the patients grumbled. Shut up, said another, something's gonna happen. The man with the elephantine nuts moaned again.)
Wolfman wasn't shopping for a bomb, but he could feel the ticking all day. Strange enough that she sent him out at all, as his lover wasn't the festive type, and she had, just a month ago, forgotten the little girl's birthday. If she felt guilty, or even knew that she'd forgotten, she gave no sign. But the task to buy the a gift had come directly from Queen Gwendolyn herself, and his first-ever foray into mainstream consumer life had left him feeling small and confused. From the view of the street, he had always associated the holiday with quiet dignity, lonely lights reflecting off of frozen squares, churches at midnight, that sort of thing, but seeing it from within was a nightmare of avarice and conformity, a swirl of snarling, empty-headed housewives with their screaming snot-nosed broods, of paunchy citizens, tame men in badly fitting clothing. He'd never been so close to so many of these people. He wanted to bolt.
Her Highness had meanwhile found a way to grow colder in that last month. She had nearly inhaled him that morning for answering the telephone (he'd been expecting the girl), but he kept in the character (Que bueno. El telefono ya trabaja, senora.), ingrained with a distrust of authority all his own. Investigatory panel of the CSA? It was his plan to look that up with Lupe as soon as the lioness was gone, although, as it turned out, he didn't get the chance.
He quit the gift quest early. The closest he got was to nearly take the advice to steal a book (said so right there on the cover) which contained all of the sorts of subversion that Lupe loved, but he figured it was more valuable for the girl to discover on her own, and there was, in his hairy bowels, some glimmer of culpability in the thought. He couldn't bring himself to go the opposite moral route, certainly no books that might contain lessons, and jewelry and clothing and toys all seemed too ridiculously irrelevant for him to comprehend. He'd try to get the queen to let him keep the money, he thought, even if he couldn't think of anything to buy with it. What Lupe might actually enjoy was getting online with him and maybe the two of them could figure out what this CSA thing was and how it worked, if she didn't know already. So he didn't respect Gwendolyn's wishes to be back late. When she gave him money, it usually meant she was traveling anyway, and he habitually disregarded such suggestions. Which is one reason he didn't see the gun.
He made a line for the computer, and was surprised to see Gwendolyn already there. She was quiet, sitting like a sculpture of road ice, and he could hear the street sounds beyond her slow, deliberate, breathing. 'I have been looking at my files here, Wolfman' (danger! she never used his nickname), 'and they have all been accessed, going back months in some cases. My browser history shows searches for very damaging, very illegal, things. Have you been in looking here, or was it the girl?'
'Hey, it was both of us, but it's coo--'
'I wish you didn't.'
The background sounds were not random, Wolfman realized, they were sirens, dopplering themselves closer, getting louder. His stomach went cold as he pieced some very obvious things together. He pointed behind him, and started to speak. 'Hey, I didn't have anything to do with--'
Gwendolyn put her hand on the pistol and raised it. 'You two shouldn't have been in my computer,' she said. 'Nobody can know about this. I'm very sorry.'
Wolfman growled, affronted, and suddenly alarmed at another obvious connection. 'Where's Lupe, you bitch?' He raised his hands and dove at her. A shot cracked, and he felt a gobbet of blood splatter his forehead before he went out.
Wolfman was standing on the chair, making pistols with his fingers when the intercom interrupted with the announcement of C-24. He looked down hopefully at his tab. "Hey, I'll be damned, that's me!"
"Wait," said one of the patients. "You can't stop now. What happened next? Where's Lupe?"
"Lupe? She's fine. She's admitted," said Wolfman. "She dragged me out of there actually. I came to, and we were in a parked cab. The dude taped up my hand, but he would only drive us straight here. Wouldn't even take any money." He held up the lucky four-fingered paw. "She musta hit the ring."
He looked back at the door, and then continued, muttering. "Couldn't get out of town tonight anyway. They yanked Lupe through those doors--she barely had a scratch--and wouldn't let me follow. I tried to push right through after them, but they locked 'em somehow."
"Wait a minute, were you talking about Gwendolyn Pryce?" said a pale, middle-aged woman. "From the news?"
"She was in the news?"
Walter coughed. "Gwendolyn Pryce was busted laundering money for the mob this afternoon, pumping it through investment vehicles somehow. Big showdown. She's likely going away for a long time."
"How 'bout that?"
"What about the police?" said someone else. "Won't they question you?"
"Nah, you think I gave 'em our real names? Doctors are almost as bad as cops. Worse maybe, you saw those nurses. Creepy. Anyway," he added, fluorishing his deck a last time, "we're going to be fine, Lupe and me." He flipped a card out into the room, where it landed face down. "I never had a daughter of my own, not that I know of, but I've always been lucky in love."