The Westchester Academy believed in keeping a low profile. So low, in fact, that we drove right past the place twice without seeing the unmarked drive that looked more like an alley than the entrance to a boarding school. As we turned in, we saw that hidden behind the street-side screen of trees and hedge was a very tall brick fence with a coil of barbed-wire on top.
"They're serious about their privacy and their security," I observed as Neeka drove the geriatric government car along the overgrown driveway.
Even without the damn motorcycle, she'd still insisted on taking over the driving. Not that I'd especially wanted to do it. It was nice to just be able to ride and look out the window. It was why she'd wanted to be the one behind the wheel that got my panties in a twist.
That's speaking figuratively, of course. I rarely wear panties. Or a bra. Or more clothes than I absolutely have to. It's not that I'm an exhibitionist – I mean yeah, I am – but my primary superheroine ability is to Change into scary stuff. Usually it's creatures out of myth, because they have a track record of being scary and why re-invent the wheel, you know?
It started with just designs on my skin, but then I got better and better at it until now I can alter my body in ways that make clothes superfluous. Being encumbered with them is also a problem when I have to Change in a hurry. Not to mention the problem of what to do with the clothes while I was wearing different skin and bones. A werewolf running around with a garment bag over her shoulder loses a bit of credibility, you know? Cuts down on the shock value quite a bit.
So I was wearing a pair of S-Mart lime-green running-shorts that kept trying to fall off my scrawny butt, and a man's white 3X t-shirt that I'd managed to cut off just a bit too short. If you think this sounds like I don't care what I wear, you'd be wrong. I care, but I've learned the hard way that my clothes are usually the first casualty in any crisis situation. Wearing nice things would just mean more grief over leaving them behind somewhere or having to tear them to shreds trying to get them off in a blazing great hurry. The fanny-pack around my waist held the stuff I really needed when the proverbial stuff hit the proverbial fan: a bullet-resistant catsuit, some throwing stars, a few snack bars and a wallet full of IDs proclaiming me to be an agent of every part of the government but the IRS.
Neeka didn't used to have problems with clothes. She could wear jeans and any top she wanted, because all she had to do was pull on her leather coat, her chauffeur's cap, and her sunglasses and she was ready to rock as her superheroine alter-ego, Ace of Diamonds.
I was getting more than a little amusement out of seeing her wrestle with her new wardrobe problems. Problems she was having because of her latest fashion accessory – an artificial two-foot-long, quite-realistic horse-tail. Yes, it goes just where you think it does. Which limits what she can wear with it, and where. Today she was sans-tailpiece. She'd compensated by putting her gorgeous red hair up in a tight pony-tail that flounced whenever she turned her head.
I tried wearing my hair like that once when my hair was long enough to manage it. It looked more like a blond puffball than a ponytail. That was before I'd settled on a short, bushy do as being more suitable for me. More practical too. My hair doesn't obey me like my live cells do. I can grow it or get rid of it, but I can't style it just by thinking about it. There is usually a catch with special abilities.
"I want to get there sometime today," she'd said from the driver's seat when I came back from 'visiting the facility' at a gas station. "You drive like you expect the road to open up in front of you any second."
"Even in Florida, the risk of sinkholes suddenly appearing in the road is not that great."
"Many of them are two hundred feet across. I found maps on the Internet! And people do too drive right into them! Check out YouTube."
We had been watching the news about the latest earthquakes in California. I'd said something about the ground staying put under our feet in Florida. It was Neeka who pointed out that we had our own geological hazard: sinkholes. I'd gone and looked it up. Now I couldn't get it out of my head. There were hundreds of the things! And the speculation from geologists was that people were making them worse by trying to move water around to make more dry spots in a state that only has two kinds of ground: beach and swamp.
We stopped in front of a tall wrought-iron gate that someone decided to improve by painting it a pale salmon color. Neeka reached out of the driver's window and pressed the button on a weathered speaker-box.
"Can I help you?"
"Visitors for Jeff Greenberg."
I leaned across and shouted at the box, "Samantha Draco. Just tell him it's Sam."
"Just a minute, please."
It was just about that long before we heard another peep out of the speaker.
"I'm sorry, Ms. Draco. Your name is not on the list of approved visitors."
"Approved? List? Who approved this list of yours? Since when does..."
At that point the man in the back seat leaned forward and spoke up in a voice that could make experienced soldiers snap to attention.
"This is official business. We need to speak to your Director. Open the gate."
The sound the gate made while creaking open made me think it hadn't been used in months. For that to be the case, two things had to be true. There was a service entrance around the block, and the place had very few visitors.
"Thanks, Colonel," Neeka said.
I should have been grateful too. Colonel Brock was simply doing the job that one of his subordinates usually handled – interceding in situations that might cause me to express my displeasure in inappropriate ways. Like ripping the speaker-box off it's pole, kicking in the gate, and going in search of whoever we'd been talking to and shoving their little box up their fat...
His tone was utterly flat and devoid of inflection, yet it brought my escalating anger to a screeching halt. Brock could do that because I respected him more than just about anyone. I might have the freaky powers and the fancy costume, but as far as I was concerned, he was the real hero of our little group. He'd walked the walk and done the deeds and had the medals, citations ... and scars to prove it. He could make me toe the line with a word ... usually.
With my mouth clamped shut and a guilty look on my face, I glanced back at Brock. He didn't look happy. Which, for Brock, meant he was even more mightily-pissed than I'd been on the way to being. I suspected it was because he wasn't any happier than I was to hear that the students at this boarding school had their visitors screened. I wondered if they could even get away with doing that kind of thing at prisons and if not, what did that say about Jeff's school.
Once past the gate, we drove around a circular driveway to a short block of visitor's parking spots on the far side. All of them were empty at the moment. Neeka pulled the car into one and a man walked over to meet us.
The impression I got was more of an orderly/guard in a mental hospital's disturbed ward than someone I'd expect to see working at a boarding school. Around early middle-age, he had a wide face under a sandy-blond buzz-cut that looked too small for his head. The skin of his face was deeply-seamed, as though he'd spent a lot of time in the sun. He wore white slacks and a white jacket over a white t-shirt and white canvas shoes. He was broad-shouldered and his arms hung away from his sides like a body-builder after a couple of sets with free-weights. Like a lot of guys tend to do, he had to be spending more time working his arms than his abs, because while his shoulders were great, his gut was threatening to overflow his waistband. He reminded me of a retired wrestler who tried to stay in shape, but couldn't control his appetite.
His reaction to us was predictable. Neeka rated a good once-over. I got the usual down-up-long-pause look as he took note of my most notable feature – my double-H-cup boobs. When Brock pried himself out of the back seat of the antique Ford sedan, the man got that serious look that guys give other guys that they perceive as a potential threat, which for some guys is pretty much anyone they aren't sure they can beat-up. The man tried to suck up his gut, which was futile. Then he clenched his fists and his jaw.
Brock didn't react to any of this. He was a professional and from what I'd seen, pros only played games with each other and never when they were on the clock.
I smiled at the male-dominance display. Actually trying to pick a fight with Brock wouldn't have ended well for the orderly. If Brock hadn't slapped him silly, Neeka would have kicked him in the knee and followed-up on two vital points before he landed on the asphalt. I would have gone the direct route and used his scrotum for a punching bag. None of which was anything close to what any of us could have done to him if we'd seen him as a real threat. In that case, Brock would have snapped his neck, Neeka would have put a bullet in his ear, and I would have torn him in half – vertically.
My amused smirk distracted him from further chest-beating. He interpreted it as a friendly expression and permission to look at my chest once more.
"I'll take you to Doctor Bargrave," he said when he'd got his eyes full.
The place was not what I expected after seeing the fence and the gate. It was nicely-landscaped, with single story buildings around a central rectangle. The buildings were painted pastel shades of lime green and yellow from the same sickly palette as the gate. Two of the largest buildings had doors at regular intervals. It looked very much like an old motor-court that had been renovated and re-purposed. The central grassy area had probably been a pool that had been filled-in.
The man led us to one of the two visible buildings that looked like they had been built in the last thirty years. As he approached the door, he took a card from his jacket pocket and held it up to a small panel beside the door. There was a click as the lock opened and he politely held the door for us to walk through.
The temperature inside was considerably cooler. I wouldn't have said it was chilly, but I saw Neeka try to rub the gooseflesh off her arms, and my top got a smidge tighter as a couple of spots crinkled-up.
The man led us down a short hallway and opened a door before stepping back and pointing inside.
"Please wait in here. Doctor Bargrave will be with you shortly." It sounded like a well-rehearsed line. It also sounded exactly like what you'd hear in a doctor's office.
The office was full of wood. Large wood desk, wall covered with wood bookcases, wood table and chairs, and wood paneling on the walls. It was like being inside a tree.
"Someone needs a new decorator," Neeka said.
I nodded. "Looks like he got it at the Oak Factory Warehouse clearance sale."
Neeka laughed. The Oak Factory was one of those places back home that were perpetually going out of business. They'd had to replace their outside banner twice that I knew of.
He had the obligatory array of document-frames hung on his wall. All gothic-typefaced with gold-foil stick-on medallions. I scanned them to see what his credentials were. Most were for just going to seminars but his diploma was up there too.
"He's not a medical doctor," I said. "His doctorate is in Education."
"We have a nurse-practitioner on staff to take care of the students medical needs," a balding, middle-aged man announced as he walked into the room. "I'm Wilson Bargrave."
The tweed coat he wore looked terribly impractical for the season, or even the latitude. The air-conditioning was the only thing that could have made it bearable for him to wear that. It had to be an affectation, like all the wood in his office. Bargrave was trying to instill confidence. I thought he was overdoing it, but maybe that's what worked for him.
He shut the door behind him and gestured at the table and chairs. "Please do sit down"
Bargrave looked at the three of us in turn, then he smiled and said, "I hope you won't think me rude if I ask to see some identification?"
The implication was clear and completely understandable. Guys in suits wouldn't have been asked for ID. Neither would anyone in uniform. We were none of the above. One obviously military type looking uncomfortable in a polo shirt and slacks. One stunning redhead in black jeans and a tank-top. And one short, busty blonde wearing the legal minimum in clothes. Claiming to be on 'official business'. I'd ask for ID too.
We handed them over. I checked to make sure I had the one that said DHS and not CDC or FEMA or something even less appropriate. Bargrave looked at each of them carefully then sat back, satisfied for the moment as to our authenticity, if not understanding just what our jobs were for the government.
"So, what brings you to the Westchester Academy?"
"We'd like to interview one of your students," Brock told him.
"Yes, I believe you asked for Jeff Greenberg. Why him? What has he done?"
"I'm not at liberty to discuss that. I can only say that it is a matter of national security."
Bargrave's eyebrows jerked upward, then down in a frown as the doubt crept onto his face.
"Feel free to confirm our credentials if you want," I said. "Call the Department. But I should warn you that one cop in Miami who checked on mine wound up on a speakerphone at the White House. Awk-ward!"
Bargrave might not have believed me, but he decided not to take the dare. No doubt from a long habit of keeping a low profile. He held up his hands, palms-out.
"I will cooperate fully, of course. But I cannot imagine how one of my students could have done something to attract the attention of the Federal government. Unless this has something to do with him using the computer in the rec building? We have a program to filter their access, but they always seem to find a way around it. Jeff has been the instigator in a lot of that. I shouldn't be surprized that he's been looking at more than just pornography."
Which meant that when Jeff went over the wall to attend the FLASFOCON, he'd managed to get out and back without his absence being detected. Apparently that perimeter fence wasn't the deterrent to outside excursions that Bargrave believed it to be. It also meant their internal security was lax, as well.
Bargrave went to the door and stuck his head out. "Bert? Would you find Jeff Greenberg and bring him to my office? Thank you."
I was about to suggest that we could just as easily go to wherever Jeff was, but I didn't get my mouth open in time.
"Since this is obviously a sensitive matter, you'll want to meet with him privately, I'm sure," he said, walking back to his seat at the table. "Then there is the matter of the disturbance you would cause walking around the campus."
"Disturbance?" Brock asked.
"You must be aware of the special nature of our students? Outsiders tend to react badly when meeting them and this causes the students unnecessary emotional distress. For their own psychological well-being, we keep them ... well... cloistered. Visitors are limited to immediate family or to those they or the court nominates."
"Court?" I asked.
"Some of those in our care were placed here by court order because they had been abandoned as infants and no foster facility would accept them."
"Because they're freaks?" I asked, my heartbeat pounding in my ears as my anger rose.
"A harsh word. And one they have done nothing to deserve. They did not choose to become what they are. None of us has that ability."
I laughed. I couldn't help myself. It was just so ironic that he would say that.
"I'm sorry, did I say something humorous?" Bargrave's jaw was set. He'd been unhappy about me calling his students freaks. Laughing had really pissed him off.
The shoe was on the other foot now. I considered apologizing. Nah.
"You said none of us has the ability to become something other than what we are. You are wrong about that."
"No, Colonel. I think Dr. Bargrave is doing his best here. He deserves to know that while his students may be mutants, but they are not mistakes. They are just pilot-studies for evolutionary change. Rough drafts."
"Well, I suppose that is one way of looking at it," Bargrave allowed.
"You said 'freak' is a harsh word, doc. If so, then I should be the most offended by it. You see, I'm super-freak. I can change what I am. I'm The Dragon."
Now it was Bargrave's turn to laugh. A quick snort, anyway. He sucked it back and smiled condescendingly at me for making such a preposterous declaration. He waved a hand at Neeka and scoffed, "Then I suppose that makes her..."
His voice caught in his throat when he saw the look in her eyes. It was the same intensely-focused look she got just before she put a bullet through something.
" ... Ace," he finished softly. He looked at Brock for something. Support, confirmation, I couldn't tell. Brock is normally unreadable. Now he was professionally so. Mt. Rushmore is a study in emotion compared to Colonel Brock.
Bargrave looked back at me with a questioning gaze. I could hardly disappoint him. I held up my hand and scaled it from my elbow to my fingertips, finishing by extruding five gleaming three-inch long claws.
Bargrave swallowed hugely. I removed the scales and claws and put my hand back on the table.
"I apologize," he said.
"No, I should apologize. We almost got off on the wrong foot here and it's mostly my fault. Tell me something. Why do you have Mr. Muscle on your staff?"
"Who? Bert? He's invaluable. Some of our students are not very mobile. He helps them get to and from their wheelchairs. That sort of thing. He even bathes some of them. He can be a little over-protective at times. He knows how upsetting strangers can be for the students."
The next few minutes were a tad awkward as we waited for the unfairly-maligned Bert to appear. I wondered if I should apologize. Then I remembered him staring at my boobs and figured that we were even.
The sharp rap on the door was a great relief. Jeff himself opened it and I was so happy to see him that I kind of lost control. I mean to jump up to greet him, but it turned into more of a leap.
Jeff barely had time to call my name before I slammed into him and knocked him back into Bert. After that, it was me and Jeff wrapped around each other, rolling across Bargrave's lobby floor while locked in a tight hug that involved arms, legs, and a tail. We stopped with me on top and I pulled back just far enough to locate his mouth before planting a kiss that started off as enthusiastic and quickly segued into passionate. Before things got too far out of control, I broke for air.
"Mmmmwwwwaahh! Good to see you again, Jeff. How've you been?"
"I take it you two have met," Bargrave said, sternly. He'd twigged that Jeff had somehow been off the reservation for long enough to make my acquaintance and he wasn't thrilled about it.
"I'm happy to see you too, Sam. I'd just about decided that you weren't coming to see me."
Jeff was wearing his usual outfit of loose boxer shorts and open-toe slippers, neither of which was actually necessary. I didn't know why he wore the slippers. They were cut wide enough to let his two big middle toes poke out, but did nothing to disguise the fact that his feet were in no way human. I'd seen him climbing all over and through piles of debris without them, so I knew the pads on his feet were tough enough to make them unnecessary and they were probably just an affectation. In my opinion, his boxers weren't really essential, since Jeff's cock was, when flaccid, encased in a sheath and all of him was covered in black fur with a few white places. Of course the shorts also hid a substantial set of the hairiest balls you've ever seen, so perhaps they served to spare the sensibilities of those unable to appreciate such a fine pair. Overall, his manner of dress gave him a decidedly cartoonish appearance. I thought he was one pair of white gloves away from starring in a kids' TV show.
The clothing thing was something we had in common. We both wore stuff not because we wanted to or needed to, but because some people would react badly if we didn't.
During our tumble across the floor, my top had ridden up and my bare nipples were luxuriating in Jeff's soft fur. It was more than a bit erotic and I could feel them swelling in response. I knew Jeff was having a similar reaction, because I was straddling his groin. If I didn't pull away soon, Bargrave was going to find out entirely too much about what had gone on between me and Jeff.
I rolled off of Jeff and tried to tug my top back into place without being too obvious about it. I could feel my nipples poking the fabric, so I knew it was probably too-little-too-late. Bargrave was kind enough not to look. Bert, however, was memorizing the displacement of each thread in my t-shirt. Although now that I knew where he was coming from, I felt more sanguine about him looking.
One effect of our little public display of affection was that neither Bert not Bargrave seemed to feel as protective as before. Neither gave us any trouble about excluding them from our meeting in Bargrave's office.
"Jeff," I began, doing the introductions while trying to ignore a tail wrapping around my calf, "this is Neeka, also known as Ace of Diamonds."
"Pleased to finally meet you," she said.
"'Wow'?" I asked him.
"Hush, Sam," Neeka said, "'Wow' is fine."
"I'm sorry," Jeff apologized. "I mean, 'wow, you're prettier than I imagined'."
Neeka leaned over and went to kiss Jeff on the cheek. She tried to maneuver around his whiskers and he 'helped' by turning so she got him on the lips instead. The kiss lasted several milliseconds longer than absolutely necessary.
"Wow," she said.
"Again with the 'wow'?"
Jeff smiled and licked his whiskers. Neeka watched his tongue closely. Jeff saw this and may have blushed terribly under all that fur. I couldn't really tell.
Before Neeka and Jeff could deepen their relationship any further, I pointed across the table.
"Jeff, this is Colonel Brock. He wants to ask you a few questions."
"Hello Colonel," Jeff said, offering his hand.
Brock didn't balk at being offered a hand that looked more like a paw. He took it and shook it.
I remember my first handshake with Brock. We'd had ourselves a nice contest to see who could squeeze the hardest. Brock didn't win, but he didn't lose either.
This time, things didn't go the way Brock expected either. When he squeezed, needle-sharp claws slid out of the tips of Jeff's fingers and poked his wrist. Startled, Brock let go. Three dots of blood welled up where Jeff's claws had broken the skin.
"Sorry, Colonel." Jeff said, unconvincingly.
Brock ignored the pricks and the blood as I was sure he would have ignored much worse injuries. He just let the blood drip onto the table until it stopped.
"I want you to understand that nothing we discuss is to leave this room," Brock told Jeff. "National security matters may be mentioned that you can't talk about with anyone. Is that perfectly clear?"
"Yessir!" Jeff was both excited and impressed at being sworn to secrecy like that. I could tell because his tail started twitching.
"Good. Because if you were to reveal any confidential information, you'd be taken away and held in a secure facility where you wouldn't be allowed contact with the outside world for a very long time."
I looked at Brock. He'd just described Jeff's whole life at the Westchester School. Had he just made a joke? Except for a slightly deeper frown, Brock was doing 'unreadable' better than usual.
Then I got it. I'd noticed the change in Colonel Brock's attitude at the front gate. I thought he'd been pissed at something and I was right. Brock was mad that Bargrave's "students" were here not because of anything they'd done, but simply because their parents or some court wanted them out of sight and out of mind. Brock was mad because their freedom had been taken away.
And that was my first glimpse into what made the Colonel tick. Right out of the blue, I'd learned what Brock considered precious and probably why he'd chosen the profession he had - freedom. And here in the very country he'd fought so hard for he'd found a bunch of people whose freedom had been taken away for no other reason than that they looked different.
I was seriously impressed that Brock could look at Jeff – who was unarguably more feline than human – and see a person who deserved the same basic human rights as anyone else. I think I'd never felt as proud of knowing Brock as I did in that moment.
Jeff didn't have the same insight into Brock's motivation, but he wasn't slow on the uptake. He'd noticed that what he was being threatened with was essentially the same life he'd been living up until now.
"I understand ... wait ... what ... how would that ... oh! You mean there's a way you might be able to get me out of here?"
"How old are you, son?"
"I turned 18 last month. My father sent me a card."
"Have you been found guilty of committing a crime?"
"Have you been declared mentally incompetent by a court of law?"
"Then you can walk out of here anytime you like and there is nothing those people can do to stop you." From the way he said 'those people', I could tell Brock didn't have the same charitable take on Bert and Dr. Bargrave that I did.
"But ... where would I go?"
Brock looked at me and nodded. I had a sudden sense of deja vu when I realized that the quick movement was the same signal he'd given David Solomon after meeting me for the first time. It meant Brock had made up his mind about Jeff and had no objection to his being recruited. Only this time, I was the one doing the recruiting. That meant Jeff would be joining my team, not Solomon's. It was a sneaky way of telling me I would be the one responsible for him.
"Jeff? Do you want to get out of here?" I asked.
"No, think about it. I mean are you willing to leave here for good? To go out there and make a life for yourself?"
Jeff sat silent for several seconds, then said, "Ever since I snuck out and went to that Con, I've been sort of sad. At first, I couldn't figure why. I mean, that was pretty much the high point of my life. I got to do something I'd always wanted to do. I got to be around a whole bunch of people who thought I was really cool and I got to meet girls and I got to ... well, I had a fantastic time. But ever since then I've felt worse than before. I think it's because I know what it can be like to be with people who don't think I'm a freak and don't keep reminding me that I need to hide away from normal people.
"If normal people think I'm weird, then that's their problem. I know there are people out there who will accept me for who I am and those are the people I want to have for friends."
"Have you thought about what you'd do on the outside?" I asked him.
"Maybe get a job at Disney World?"
That sounded better than joining a carnival's freak-show, but only by a matter of degree.
"Ever thought of saving the world?"
Jeff laughed, "That's your job!"
"I could use some help."
Jeff stopped laughing.
"When we were at the Con, you asked me if I thought of myself as a superhero. I'd had fantasies about that before, but I knew they were only fantasies. Then later, when I followed you I got the chance to help rescue those people and that was the best I'd ever felt about myself – ever. I will go wherever I have to and do whatever I need to so I can feel that way again."
That sounded more honest than some of the rationalizations I'd used for a lot of the stuff I'd done. Anyone who doesn't try to feed their ego probably doesn't have one. Mine is bigger than most, so I couldn't count that against him.
"It might be ... no, it will be dangerous," I assured him.
"OK." No bluster, no bravado, just 'OK'. That had to be the right answer to that one.
"You might get killed."
"Is what I'm doing here really living?"
That was the most brutally-honest thing I'd heard anyone say about themselves. It made Brock sit back in his chair and swallow a lump in his throat. When I saw that, I knew there was no way we could walk out of there without Jeff.
Neeka couldn't think of anything I hadn't already covered, so it looked like the interview portion of the meeting was over.
"OK, Jeff. Here's the deal. There are some very bad guys out there who want to hurt a lot of innocent people. In some cases, a whole lot of innocent people. Our job," and I waved a hand to include Brock in that, "is to stop them any way we can. Using any means necessary. Are you OK with that?"
"You want to know if I could take a life to save a life? Honestly, I don't know."
"Nobody knows," Brock said. "Not until the choice is there in front of them. Most of the time you make it without thinking about it. You only find out afterward which way you chose. Then you live with it. Living with the choice you made is always the hardest part. That's true whichever way you go."
That was certainly one of the longer speeches I'd heard Brock make. And it was also one of the most revealing. For one thing, it explained why I felt that Brock and Leonora had more something in common – they were both living with their choices to kill and the reasons behind them.
"Life's supposed to be about choices, isn't it?" Jeff asked rhetorically. "I want to be able to make my own."
That seemed to be the last word anyone had to say.
"Welcome to the team," I told Jeff. "You are now one of the Guardians."
"I'll explain later. Or rather I'll let Leonora explain. She's more ah, enthusiastic about the name. Neeka and I think it's a shade pretentious."
"No, it's good. Short and simple. Who's Leonora?"
"She's the fourth member of our group ... team ... gang ... whatever we are."
After the meeting, Brock asked Bargrave for a word in private. They went back into Bargrave's office and closed the door while Bert took Jeff to collect whatever he wanted to take with him. Neeka and I retreated to the far side of the lobby area and I made an effort not to listen-in.
I succeeded until the door opened and Brock backed out, telling Bargrave, "See that you do, Doctor. No, we can find our own way out. Thank you for your cooperation."
Brock didn't slam the office door, but he did pull it closed so firmly that the wood creaked.
"Problem?" I asked him.
"No." And that was all he said about it.
Jeff took his sweet time. We were just about to go look for him when I noticed movement outside the front door. It was Jeff, with Bert pushing two wheelchairs side-by-side, followed by a couple of people I recognized from Jeff's descriptions as John and Howie. John could almost have passed for normal, if his single eye hadn't been right in the center of his face. I couldn't miss Howie. He was talking and gesturing broadly with all four arms.
"Looks like Jeff is getting a send-off," I told Brock, who didn't have the angle on the door to see the approaching group. "It's some of his fellow students. Some of them make Jeff look normal. We're going to have to go say hello."
"You think I don't have the stomach for it?" Brock asked. "Ever been in a military hospital during wartime? You see a lot of people who don't look like people anymore. Some of them your people. If I can do that, I can do this. Let's go."
Brock did magnificently. I expected him to be his usual taciturn self, but he actually managed to be personable. Which was great, because after the expected initial introductions of Neeka and me and the obligatory Change I did for them, they wanted to know who he was and what he did.
"I command a Special Operations team," he told them. "That's a group of soldiers with the experience and the skills to tackle very special assignments. I can't tell you any specifics, but I am very proud to lead them."
One of the wheelchair-bound students spoke up. He was difficult to understand because his jaw merged with his chest. Bert interpreted for him.
"Corey wants to know if you are the same Colonel Brock who was awarded the Medal of Honor a couple of years ago."
Brock stiffened microscopically. At first I thought it was embarrassment, but then I realized he felt he needed to rise to the occasion.
"That is correct." After such a brief answer, I think everyone understood that asking for details would be impolite.
Corey said something else, which Bert relayed as, "Corey says he would like to shake your hand, if you don't mind."
The appendage Corey held out to be shaken was so misshapen that it could have been either a hand or a foot. Brock leaned down and took the bit of flesh in his hand and shook it. If he flinched, cringed, or winced in any way at all, I couldn't see it.
After that, everyone wanted to shake hands with Brock and he obliged them all, even shaking hands with Howie twice.
Bert was the last. Oddly, he seemed the most enthusiastic about shaking Brock's hand.
"Marine?" Brock asked as Bert pumped his hand.
"I can always spot a jarhead," Brock told him. "Semper fi."
After that, the only thing left to do was leave. As we climbed into the car, Neeka noticed that all Jeff had was a plastic shopping bag. "Is that all your stuff?" She asked.
"I decided there wasn't much I wanted to take with me," he said. "I gave it all away. This is just some shorts and my robe."
I remembered the long monk's robe. It was what he wore in public so as not to freak-out people.
"Making a clean break?" I asked him.
"Yeah. I didn't want to take anything with me to remind me of this place. I hope I won't be coming back."
"Not to stay," I said. "You should probably visit your friends, though."
Jeff cocked his head at me, like he was wondering if I was crazy. Then he thought about it.
"Yeah, I guess. It's not their fault for being stuck here."
"There you go!"
"Still sucks, though. As much as we all talked about getting out, this is probably the best place for some of us to be."
"Yeah. He's got the most problems, but I think he's probably the smartest guy here."
"Funny how that works sometimes."
"Who? Oh, right. Well, Corey isn't that smart."
"Too bad. With the world the way it is, we need all the brains we can get. No matter what condition the body is in."
Jeff turned his head and looked out the window as the car pulled away. I understood what he must have been feeling. He'd lived at the Westchester Academy for most of his life. Leaving home is never easy, even after it has started to feel like a prison.
Only when we were back on the main road did he turn away from the window.
"So," he asked, "where are we going?"
"Fort Walton Beach," I told him.
"Don't like the beach?"
Jeff held up his arm and rubbed his thick black fur. "Actually, I do. But lying in the hot sun gives me heat exhaustion. I don't have enough sweat glands to stay cool in the direct sun, so I have to spend a lot of time in the water. That's OK. I like to swim."
"You like the water? I thought ... nevermind" Neeka cut her comment short as soon as she realized that she'd been thinking of Jeff as a talking cat instead of person who was cat-like.
Jeff took her slip-up in stride. "That's OK. "You wouldn't believe some of the stuff Mindy and Cindy asked me at the Con."
"I thought it was Cindy and Mindy?" I asked, jokingly. We were talking about a couple of furry-fans whom I'd encouraged to spend some time with Jeff.
"They were kind of hard to tell apart," Jeff agreed, "until they took their clothes off. Then it was easy."
Neither Neeka nor I wanted to follow that up, so we stayed mum. Then Jeff noticed Colonel Brock looking at him sideways.
"Tan lines," he explained. "Their tan lines were different."
Brock nodded his understanding.
"Of course, when we turned the lights out it was had to tell who was who. Girls are all the same in the dark."
Jeff had to have meant that as a joke. I knew Jeff's night-vision was excellent. He wouldn't have had any more trouble seeing in a dark hotel room than I did. Jeff kept looking at Brock like he was waiting for something.
Brock twitched the corner of his mouth, pressed his lips together, and a tiny smile escaped before he regained his composure. For Brock, this was a belly-laugh. I was instantly jealous. Getting Brock to crack-up was my damn hobby and here Jeff had beaten me at it.
"Anyway," Jeff said, "I just meant, what's in Fort Walton Beach?"
"Leonora has a house there," I told him.
"You say that like she has more than one," Jeff noted.
"She does. It's like she collects them. She told us she had money, and we knew she'd moved around a lot. But we didn't find out about the houses until we started discussing trying to get you to join us. The question of, ah, 'living arrangements' is what brought that up."
"Leonora's house in the mountains only has two bedrooms," Neeka explained.
"Oh?" Jeff said, confused. Then, "Oh! Oh, well. I wouldn't have minded sharing a room ... or a bed."
"Down, tiger," I scolded him. "We all agreed it would be best for everyone if you had a room to yourself. Leonora's beach house is one of those beautiful old places with lots of big rooms and a veranda. It's got a large, wooded lot for privacy. But it's not actually on the beach. You have to take a boat across some water, past some small islands, and across another island to get to the ocean-side beach. It's the better part of a mile away."
If it sounds like I was a little disappointed, I guess I was. When Leonora said 'beach house' I'd pictured walking out the door and into the surf.
"And," Neeka said, "it's only a couple of miles from Hurlburt Airfield, which is part of Eglin Air Force Base. Which makes our government friends happy."
"No more flashy helicopter landings on football fields in the middle of a game, hunh, Colonel?" I said.