SWITCHBACK

A Keeper Of The Sins Story

     “Sir!  Sir!  You can’t go in there!  You can’t go – security is on the way!”

     The board room was simply designed with dark hardwood hues.  His office door was on the other side, and it was closed.     The pretty little harpy following me sniped into her headpiece, directing hospital security our way.

     The door to the office was locked, but for all its elegance, it was a simple counter pin holding the shaft in place.  I called on the Unhallowed and bore down on it until it bent out of the way.

     The man scrambling behind the desk was in his mid fifties with a magnificent mane of white hair and plain charcoal grey suit.  He had a black box before him, frantically clawing at the front of it.  He stopped moving when I walked in, a blue-eyed deer in the headlights.  The secretary behind me held her breath.  

     I strode over to the closer of the leather seats before the desk and threw myself in it.

     We stared at each other for a few seconds before he stared moving again, starting with his eyes.  He darted a look to his secretary, back to me, then down to the black box again.  Scrabble.

     “Did you try your birthday?  It might be your birthday.”  He stopped rock solid.  Blue gaze moving up to mine.  “You know, the combination.  Try the date you were hired?”

     Scrabble.

     I looked around the office.  Boxes and boxes of files, awards and the like were stacked against the far wall.  It was a good thing this was a large office – he was going to have a lot of shelves put in. Three antique wooden filing cabinets stood in the corner, but he was going to have to install a couple of those industrial ones, as well.  Secretary was still standing in the doorway, hand over her mouth.  She’d better start breathing soon, or else she was going to wake up downstairs.

     There was a sudden click and the man behind the desk was transformed into a crisp eyed action figure.

     I cocked my head.  “The problem with keeping a semiautomatic in storage is the clip.  If you leave it loaded, the spring gets weak.  You’ll get one, maybe two shots off before it jams.”

     Blue eyes gazed suspiciously at the gun.

     I threw my hands in the air at the sound of thundering in the boardroom.  “Help me!  He’s gonna shoot!”

     The security guards, tazers drawn, took in the scene as best as they could.

     The man behind the desk pointed at me.  “No!  Him!  Arrest him!”

     I dropped my hands and turned to the guards, eight huge men that seemed to thin the air in the room.  “Hey guys.  Carl?  You letting your hair grow out?”

     The guard in the front lowered his tazer.  “Um, Mister… um, Director?  That’s um…”

     Everyone in the room looked at each other.  No one was willing to move.

     Enough fun.  “I’m Amfortas.  Howdy.”

     “Am– Am…?”  He turned to the large plaque on the wall, one of the only things the previous occupant left behind.  A list of the largest donators engraved on individual brass plaques attached to a varnished slab of oak.  For ease, the plaques could be unscrewed and thrown out, should the need arise.

     “I’m the big one at the top.”

     The crisp eyed action figure was transformed again.  “Oh… OH!  Yes, of course, I’m… sorry!  I didn’t know you had an appointment.”

     “Yeah, I didn’t.  But we can talk now.”
     Silence.

     The Hospital Director plunked the gun back in the lockbox without ejecting the shell from the chamber.  “Well, it seems this has all been a misunderstanding.  Very sorry to inconvenience you gentlemen.  Miss LaPonte, please show them out.”
The security guards filed out, one of them mouthing “good one” at me.  The Director busied himself putting the lockbox away.  The secretary touched my shoulder.  “In the future I’m going to require you make an appointment.  The director has a full schedule with the transition and—.”

     “That’s quite all right, Elise.  A friend of the Hospital like Mister Amfortas here is always welcome.”

     I clasped my hand on hers.  “Translation: the idiot that represents over a quarter of all combined donations can operate on whoever he damn pleases.”

     The director laughed and gave me a “you rascal” look.  He straightened his coat, watching his secretary leave the room from the corner of his eye.  When the door closed on her, he turned his full attention on me.  “Between you and me, my door really is always open.  Elise is a very dedicated employee, but she sometimes loses touch with the human aspect of running a hospital.”  He held out his hand.  “Doctor Driscoll, at your service.”

     “You know who I am.”  I took his hand.  His hand was plump, but firm.  I could feel the strength within that grip, the dexterity.  How much life had passed through this hand?  He held the grip for the exact amount of time at the exact amount of pressure and let go.  “Any business needs to have one foot in reality.  She should be a good counter balance for you.”

     I could have danced to his chuckle.  “Very true.  Without a healthy flow of finances, we couldn’t afford quality doctors, treatments, and our clinic.  I’m hoping to turn Lawndale Hospital into the kind of…”  He looked to see where I was pointing.  He shook his head and his serious expression broke into a glib smile.  “Yes, I suppose you have heard all this.  Anyone kind enough to donate as you have knows.”

     “To be fair…”  I traced the pattern embroidered on the arm of the chair.   “I…  I have another reason for giving to the hospital.  My daughter has been a patient here for many years.”  Doctor Driscoll had opened a laptop and was negotiating the screens.  “The accident left her comatose.”

     “She’s been here for seven years?  Oh my.”  He touched the fingertips of his other hand to his lips.

     “I knew you could appreciate my situation.”

     “I can’t even imagine what you’re going through.”

     “You can’t?  Not even a little?”

     He stiffened.

     “Back in 1995, maybe?”

     His gaze drifted downwards until he was pondering the keyboard.  Like the letters there would divine his answers as a witchboard.  “You’ve done your homework.”

     “In cases where someone may be affecting my family, yes.  I’m excruciatingly thorough.”

     “Yet, it’s hardly the same circumstance.  I was comatose for a week.”

     I nodded.  “Food poisoning can be brutal.  Sounded pretty horrific.”

     His smile became bitter.  “The Calloway Soup Company went to financial ruin from the event.”  Doctor Driscoll looked into the corner, but his eyes focused farther away.  “That was the defining moment in my life.  To have come through it unscathed convinced me there was a greater plan for me.  I turned my attention to–”

     My knife sunk halfway to the hilt in his throat.  The trick to throwing a knife from this close is controlling the spin.

     The man behind the desk reacted just like someone who had a bucket of chum thrown on them, arms spread shoulder width, eyes and mouth in perfect “O”’s.  

     “See, that was your mistake.  Fifteen people died, three more recovered with significant brain damage… then there was you.  Mental capacity; unchanged.  Physical effects; none.  You took the money from the lawsuit and went back to school.  Full fledged doctor in just six years.”

     He moved after three heartbeats, gently laying his hands on the desk.  His expression hardened infinitely, bristling his cherubic face into something angled.  He reached up slowly and pulled the knife free, laid its bloodless blade on the blotter before him.

     “If there had been others who survived, if you hadn’t made such a beeline up the ladder of success, there would have been some doubt.  But you were too greedy, weren’t you?  You had to have all the victims to yourself.  Had to climb to power now.”

     “Keeper of the Sins.” 

     “Pestilence.”       

     “Lapdog of the Pope.”  He made it sound like a curse.  

     “Good to see you finally traded that old body out.”

     I traced the pattern in the chair while the other man stared.  He took a breath at last.  “What do you want?”

     “You.  Out of here.”

     Pestilence laughed.  “I just gained the position, and you don’t have the leverage.”

     I nodded sagely.  “Yeah, I suppose that’s a possibility.  You’ve been awfully careful.  Its been years since I’ve been able to shoot you in public.”

     Pestilence rolled his eyes.  “My university position at Yale.  Shooting me through my water glass during lecture was so tacky.”

     “So what are you doing here?  This hospital doesn’t have a stellar recovery rate you can ruin.  Its rate is almost flush in the middle.”

     The man behind the desk started twirling the knife as absently as I traced the pattern on the chair.

     Still staring at the knife, Pestilence cocked his head.  “What if I promise to be gone from this place in five years.  And in return, I can manipulate funds so you get half your annual donation back.”  He looked up.  “Untraceable, of course.”

     I scratched my chin.  “Eighteen months and half the donation.  I don’t like you running a hospital in my town.”

     “Four years and two thirds.  I can’t leave gracefully in a year and a half.”

     “Twenty months and three quarters of the donation.  I could set off a bomb in your car in front of witnesses.  No way you could pretend you survived.”

     Pestilence stood up again, looking at me like I was giving off an offensive odor.  He walked to the window.  “Sunrise already broke, Keeper.  I could hold you here until it swings this way.”

     I rapped my feet up on his desk.  “This window faces north, dumbass.”

     He faced me again, glaring at my feet.  “How about this:”  He put his arms wide on the desk, hovering down at me like a buzzard.  “You turn the other way for four and a half years… and I will return one hundred and fifty percent of your donation.”

     “Wow.”  I took my feet off the desk and curled up a little with my hand over my mouth.  “That’s pretty serious.”  I looked into the corner for a count of thirty, then took to my feet slowly.  I met his eyes and smiled.  “I could give a shit about the money.  I wanted to see how hard you would fight for the time frame.”

     Pestilence hissed a curse at me and backed up to the window, his blue eyes starting to glow cold.

     I smiled and unzipped my jacket the rest of the way.  “So, you really have a hard-on for the five year time frame.  Why is that?”

     He slipped off his suit coat, tossed it off to the side.  From his pocket, he held up my knife which he snagged when he thrust himself away from the desk.  Before he could move, I brought my cleaver from behind me, thunking the sharpened corner an inch into his desk.  The ancient bronze cross imbedded in the face of the blade reflected the light back at Pestilence in a furious blaze.  He oozed backwards as far as he could.

     “So you’re fixed on a five year timeframe.  You chose this hospital.  Why?”
Pestilence moved out of the glare, started preening his white mane.  I rested my hand on the handle of the cleaver, but turned to face him.  He glared at me out of the corner of his eyes as he made a visible effort to control himself.

     “More importantly, you expect to be gone in five years.  That’s not much time to screw things up around here.  This isn’t like you.  Any of you Horsemen.  You always look for seats of power to pull your strands…”  I felt my jaw slacken as the fact sunk home.

     “You’re wrong.”  Pestilence smiled, his yellow teeth lightening in color as I watched.  “The survival rate of this hospital will rise, dramatically.”

     “Giving you the credibility for something bigger.  Much bigger.”

     “As director of Chicago’s largest hospital, I will have plenty of chances to network.”  Pestilence slipped back into his jacket slowly, luxuriating the movement.  “In five years, my… singular talents will make me the candidate to remember.  I will be on the minds of old and new friends on Capitol Hill.”  He ran his mouth around the words like the first bite of a fine meal.

     “A seat of power for the country’s new health care.”

     He shrugged, hands wide.  “What better place to direct research, squash treatments, decide who gets help?  Humans killed off my favorite children with their damn organization.  Smallpox…”  His face went blank for a second.  The moment ended and he shook his head.  “This is a golden opportunity to pay them back.”

     “And if there is no room at the top for you?”

     His cherubic face pantomimed sorrow.  “Aggressive tumors are so tragic.”

     I pulled my cleaver up, settled it in my hand.

     He held up a finger.  One finger.  “Witnesses can work against you, you know.  You were seen by a roomful of security and my secretary.  How many miles of video are on record at this facility?  How would things turn out for you, if you struck this body down?”

     My glare had no effect on his smile.  I re-sheathed my cleaver.  “I know an Earth Elemental who would be tickled to know where you will be staying for the next five years.”

     He looked at his Rolex.  “Not unless your father can get here in the next ten minutes.  I will be under the constant protection of one of the other Horsemen.  Death and Famine have a stake in my endeavor.”
Damn.  “And one Elemental can’t win against two Horsemen.”

     His smile drew wider.  Inhuman.  Came back to normal.  I turned when the door handle jiggled and Elise LaPonte pecked into the room.  She nodded to the director.

     “Now, you will have to excuse me, Marcus.  I have an early board meeting.”

     He came alongside me, close enough for me to whisper.  “You shouldn’t have come to my town to do this, Pestilence.  Your arrogance killed you.”

     We strode into the board room together.  The seven people around the table stood, smiling at their new leader.

     He laughed musically, calling out so the whole room could hear.  “That joke never fails to amuse me, Marcus.  Truly.  Now, Miss LaPonte, could you show Mister Amfortas out?  And please make a note to speak with the heads of the smaller departments: Janitorial, Security.”  His eyebrow quirked when he said the last.

     The secretary opened the door and stood aside for me, though I was halfway across the room.

     Our eyes met.

     I scratched my neck.

     She slipped a hand into a hidden seam in her blouse, emerged with a .38 chiefs special.  She fired once before her clipboard hit the ground, and a perfect hole appeared beneath the directors’ white hairline.  The impact took the director off his feet and back into his new office.  Elise LaPonte transformed from a thin, fragile thing to a gazelle, leaping out the door.
I was at the director’s side, holding his hand.  To the clamor behind me, I looked all the world like a comforting presence.

     Pestilence blinked, looked up at me, coming out of his stupor.

     “You just got shot in the head with a hollow point.  In front of witnesses.  Don’t worry, “Elise” will get away just fine.”

     His blue eyes flashed red.  He hissed.  “Hate you.”

     I smiled.  “Love this.”