I wake up muzzily, unsure of where I am. There’s a buzz of conversation around me, the draft of a large room, and an uncomfortable pressure in my side from the plastic arm of a chair — I must still be in the hospital waiting room.
I open my eyes and confirm this unfortunate fact. Someone’s come and put a blanket over me, but that seems to be all of the attention I’ve received. Across from me, a woman messes with the zipper on a burned backpack.
My oxygen tank! I sit up abruptly, reaching out with a, “Hey!”
The woman looks up in surprise, and my still-awakening brain informs me that it is Dr. Simmons.
“Oh. It’s you,” I say weakly.
“Thought I’d come to steal your backpack, Dan?” she asks with a smile. “You remember that I’m the one who gave it to you, yes?”
“Trust me,” I tell her. “I’ve spent a good bit of the last hour making sure that I had it to give back. Hour? Couple hours? How long was I asleep?”
“It’s just after four now,” Simmons says, so yeah, a couple of hours. She holds up the blackened and burnt backpack. “Also, this is how you return things? You’re never borrowing my car.”
“Hey, you told me not to blow myself up with it! I’m not blown up. It’s not blown up. Great success. Anyway, what kind of shoddy hospital are you running here where patients sit in the waiting room for hours and no one comes to take care of them?”
“One: I don’t run this hospital, Dan. And two,” she glances at the floor at my feet, “the people who do run it only consider you a patient once you’ve filled out your paperwork and let the nurse know that you’re here, so that they know to call you.”
I look down as well. At my feet sits the clipboard with the still-blank forms on it, having slid off of my lap sometime during my nap. “Ah. That would explain it.”
“Fortunately, for you I will make an exception,” says Doc Simmons, standing up and slinging the backpack over her shoulder. “If you’ll come with me?”
I unfold myself painfully from the chair. “Why do I get the feeling that this is more about you drawing blood and less about my health and well-being?”
“Because you are an astute individual, Dan.”
“Fine. Lead on, Dr. Acula.”
Simmons gives me a quizzical look. “Ah, it was funny in my head,” I say. “Write it down later, you’ll get it.”
Half a dozen vials of blood and a couple of skin scrapings later, Simmons has her samples set aside and is bandaging up the worst of my burns. “These really don’t look so bad, all things considered,” she remarks. “The backpack’s in worse condition.”
“They were a little bit worse when I got them, I think, but I still heal from surface stuff like this pretty easily. They’ll probably mostly be gone by tomorrow or the day after.”
“That’s good. Incidentally, have you been near a mirror yet?”
“You’re going to want to get a haircut.”
I raise my hands to the sides of my head and feel around. The hair feels crisped at the ends all over, and I can feel bare patches of skin in several places at the back. “Right. Looks like I’m buzzing it.”
“Do you want me to do that for you? We have an electric razor here, and I can see the burned patches to avoid them better than you’ll be able to.”
“A doctor who gives haircuts? What is this, bringing back the Middle Ages?”
“Dan, say thank you to the person who’s about to wield knives near your head.”
“Thank you, Dr. Simmons!”
With my nemesis dispatched, my oxygen tank returned and my hair freshly cut, I’m feeling like a new man. A still fairly beaten-up man, but on the whole things are looking a lot better. This feeling lasts as far as the hospital lobby.
I’m heading for the doors and freedom when I hear a familiar voice, and look over at the admissions desk to see Peterson talking with the nurse on duty, who’s looking at her monitor and shaking her head. I start to slink out the doors before I remember that I came clean with Peterson and I’m not avoiding him anymore. It’s apparently going to take a while to get that message to my automatic systems.
Instead of making my escape, I call out, “Officer Peterson!”
He turns and regards me. “Mr. Everton! I was just looking for you. I’d like to talk.”
I wince. “All right, but seriously, could you smile or something when you say that? You’re coming across as pretty grim and ominous.”
“My station burned down, my friends are injured, and there is an impressive mess to clean up. You do not want to see my smile right now.”
“Would coffee make this less ominous?”
“It would, thank you.”
We adjourn to the cafeteria and take a table in the corner. Despite the addition of coffee, Peterson still looks pretty grim. He turns his cup around in his hands several times, staring at me, before beginning.
“I’m about to have to tell a lot of lies to a lot of people, Mr. Everton. Both for the sake of making them sound accurate and for my own peace of mind, I’d like to know the truth.”
“I mean, you know most of it –”
“Tell me what happened after I left the building. In detail.”
I step him through the fight as best as I can remember it, emphasizing my efforts to subdue but not kill with the fire. “Except for the body blob,” I say, shuddering again at the image of the wave of grasping hands and teeth. “That, I set directly on fire and never regretted.”
That gets a smile from Peterson, and he’s right — it looks feral and not at all reassuring. “Understandable.”
“I am sorry about the extent of the damage. It would have been easier to burn off all of the oxygen with Vince in a smaller room, but he was right in the middle of things and I had to ramp the fire way up.” I’m starting to babble, so I take a deep breath. “The building’s a total loss, huh?”
“It looks like it, yes.” Peterson takes a long drink from his coffee, then sets it back down. “But all of the officers are alive and accounted for, so I’m willing to accept it.”
He takes another drink, tilting the cup almost all the way up. “If Vince turned as much of the building into that flesh mass as you say, I have some phone calls to make, if you’ll excuse me.”
“Sure,” I say, but I must look as puzzled as I feel, because Peterson continues, “Bones don’t burn up in a standard fire. With all of the arms, hands and teeth you described, do you know what that mess is going to look like to the investigators? A slaughter, one of unprecedented proportions. And of course, they won’t match up to full bodies.”
I picture the trail of burned bones literally carpeting the floor and shudder. “What are you going to do?”
Peterson shrugs. “Pass it up the chain of command, mainly. The advantage here is that this is so impossible that people will be willing to cover it up rather than try to make it make sense. But I need to get started before someone says the wrong thing to the wrong person, and suddenly we’ve got headlines reading “HUNDREDS OF BODIES FOUND IN POLICE STATION MASSACRE.”
As we stand to leave, Peterson says, “Thank you for trusting me, Mr. Everton. In the event that something like this should come up again, I hope you’ll remember that I am on your side.”
“Yeah, I know. Thank you, too.” We shake hands, and Peterson heads for the doors. I finish my coffee and follow after.
Leaving the hospital, I check my phone for messages. I have a text from Brian asking how I’m doing, and a missed call with accompanying voicemail from Matt. I stare at that one for a long moment; it’s not going to be pretty, but I should probably just rip the band-aid off and deal with it.
“Out of the hospital,” I text Brian. “Got anything going on tonight?”
“It’s my weekend,” he writes back. “Movies?”
“My couch is fried. Your place?”
“Rock it. Now?”
“Need to go home for fresh clothes, but sure.”
“Pick you up from there, then.”
Plans thusly made, I amble to the bus stop to catch a ride home. After a minute, I take my phone back out and reluctantly check my voicemail.
“Dan, this is Matthew. It is currently 1:25 on Wednesday afternoon. Please return this call as soon as you get it.”
I sigh and call Matt back.
“Dan!” I don’t know how he manages to sound both upbeat and regretful at the same time, but he does. “We need to talk, I’m afraid. Can you come in to Børger?”
“How about tomorrow, Matt?”
“I’d really like to handle this as soon as possible.”
“Sure, and I get that. But I’ve just been released from the hospital.”
“The hospital! Dan, are you all right?”
“I’m gonna be, yeah. But I could really stand to not deal with this right now.”
There’s a pause before Matt says, “All right, Dan. We can do this tomorrow.”
Shoot. I’m fired again, aren’t I?