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When the water supply at the Mansion went foul, and Sergeant Major Rawlins called for help, the Housing Division impatiently referred it over to the military. The military, for once right on the ball, sent over an expert from Base Maintenance with a cure. Would it fix the problem? Corporal Jimmy Moore swore it would, per his superior, Sergeant Rossman, and Rawlins had seriously hoped so, but now, the day after that 'cure' was administered, Garrison got in HIS two-cents worth.

"No, Lieutenant, don't - !!" Rawlins cried when he walked into the kitchen and spotted a hot and sweaty Craig Garrison, just back from a long run, at the sink getting a drink.

But it was too late, Garrison had already swallowed the contents of that glass. Rawlins hurried to pour a fresh glass from the wooden keg on the chair in the corner and mutely held it out for Garrison to take. Well, as soon as the officer finished disposing of what he'd already swallowed, as he was busy doing, spewing it back into the sink quicker than it had gone down.

"Gil, get with the Housing Division about this! I don't know what's gone wrong, but it needs attending to, right away! It's even worse than before!" Garrison proclaimed after he'd gagged up the glass of water he'd gotten from the sink's tap.

Even after it was up and gone, he still felt himself shuddering in response to that taste that coated his mouth and just kept getting stronger and stronger as the seconds trickled by. Even the glass of uncontaminated water he now gulped did little to kill that rotten after-taste, and probably would do little to temper the results of that brew on his insides. He predicted another uncomfortable few hours in the john, as each of them had experienced ever since the problem became apparent several days ago. Thinking again about that new almost-indescribable level of foulness, he hoped a few hours of stomach distress would be ALL he would be experiencing.

"Already did, Lieutenant, while you and the men were gone on that two-day training exercise. They forwarded it on to Base Maintenance, and this is w'at they came up with. Pumped in some so-called 'miracle cure' yesterday afternoon. Didn't much like the notion when they arrived, 'ave to admit, not after I got a whiff of the stuff in all those jugs, but they swore it worked like a charm, that we'd see a difference afore we knew it. I checked with them again this morning, talked to Sergeant Rossman, 'Ead of Maintenance, asked if they was SURE, seeing w'at the water tastes like, smells like, but 'e say it's just fine, is just w'at is needed to clear the system, and won't do us no 'arm, just takes some getting used to."

From the look on his face, Garrison shared Rawlins' apparent skepticism of that 'getting used to' ever happening. Him and the team just driving in from London earlier that morning, this was the first occasion he'd had to sample the new-and-SOO-not improved version of what was being dispensed from the water taps; they'd even stopped at the pub to grab coffee before going on the Mansion. Now, he was even more glad than before that they'd done that; mixing that foul substance with their supply of almost-coffee was something he did NOT want to experience! He listened as Rawlins went on.

"Still, I took a sample down to Dr. Riley after I got off the line; 'e took a good whiff, and once 'e stopped coughing and 'is eyes stopped tearing, says no telling w'at that would do to our insides. 'E's to get tests run on it with someone 'e knows up in London, but says for us to steer clear of drinking any of it til then. I was just about to put a sign on all the faucets.

"What do you have lined up as a replacement, or have you gotten that far?" Garrison asked. Rawlins was efficient, a real bulldog when need be; the officer was sure the man had something in mind, or soon would have if he didn't already.

"Got that keg of water from the village for in 'ere, some bigger ones for the guard's barracks, but we're going to be on short rations til this is fixed. Village is running low, this time of year, you know, though Constable Miller says 'e will organize things and there are those willing to share. W'at I brought back this time came from the pub. Not going to be enough for drinking AND washing, though, w'at little I can beg from them, not unless we can get the Base to send in one of them water tankers. I asked for one, but you know 'ow they are. Think we can just 'make do', whatever the shortfall."

Garrison fumed, and went to place a call to the Base Commander. Unfortunately, Colonel Joe Anderson and his assistant were walkabout, and other than leaving a message, there was nothing else Garrison could do at the moment. Except head for the john once again.

 

Base Maintenance and Systems, early the day prior.

"Bullshit, all of it bullshit! There's a war on and we spend our days dealing with bullshit!" The burly man in uniform picked up a handful of the new items that had just appeared in his In Box and tossed them in the air in disgust. Some fluttered back down to his desk, most to the floor, and he seemed disinclined to retrieve any of them!

So, maybe part of it was his hangover, partly his being passed over for promotion yet again (which was the cause of his overindulgence which led to his hangover in the first place) - whatever, it had left him with no patience for what he considered the petty bitching and moaning inherent in the requisitions and work requests that passed over his desk this fine morning.

Picking up the latest request that actually had landed square in front of him, Department Leader Sergeant Justin Rossman snorted with annoyance and waved it indignantly in the direction of his assistant, young Corporal Jimmy Moore.

"It's always something. This isn't some luxury hotel, you know, Jimmy? You'd think they'd all realize that, but NO, all we get are these bullshit complaints. Surprised they aren't asking for silk sheets and fluffier pillows! Not enough of this, not enough of that! What I say is, they don't like it, ship them out to a front-line unit or some flea-and-sand filled hellhole and let them figure out they didn't have anything to complain about. Don't know why they think we're supposed to fix all their problems; let them fix their OWN damned problems, that's what I say!

"I mean, look at this latest from Rawlins up at that fancy-ass Mansion in Brandonshire.
**"The water is suddenly extremely foul to the taste and smell. It leaves a yellowish slime in the sinks and in the glasses, and is very hard to scrub free. The taste and smell linger even after several washings, and totally overpowers the taste of any food or beverage prepared with it, even when the water is boiled several times prior to use. The results on the men's inner workings is resulting in less efficiency on the job and more time lost in dealing with the results." And it goes on and on, all the way to asking me to send them a water tanker! Any idea what one of those babies cost to operate??!

"And that 'inner workings' shit! What, he can't just say they've all got the runs? Probably faking it, half of them, just to get out of work, that's my guess. And if they are washing the glasses in that same water, if it's all that bad, I'm none too surprised it don't get rid of the taste.

"Still, what do they think WE can do about it? Place probably needs a new well or new pipes or something like that. Hell, we only lease that place, we don't own it. Besides, like I said, every place has SOME drawbacks! And a water tanker, like he's asking for? Yeah, give me a break! Like that's going to happen! Screw up my accounts real fast, that would! Already getting heat about that."

Yes, that had been one of the several negative items noted on his Unsatisfactory Review Rating. 'Accounts not in balance', 'Inventory not maintained properly', 'Inadequate accounting and management of distribution of assets and resources, physical and human', 'Results of periodic physical not within acceptable range' - oh, all that and much more. He sneered, remembering everything that had been brought so firmly to his attention.

It had covered such a wide range, he was surprised no one had decided to take off points for the fact that his latest attempt at covering his graying hair had been a little, well, quite a bit off from his intent. Well, so it HAD turned out a little different than it'd said on the box; sure as hell not like that woman's hair in the picture. He was a little pissed about that. If they were going to put something out that came out that different, they should show it like it really was. {"Maybe being a man's hair makes a difference, though, in how it comes out. Yeah, that's probably it."}

Pulling his mind back to the job at hand, he sneered down at Rawlins' request. Rereading that complaint, starting to stamp it "Request Denied", he thought again and hesitated. Last time he'd done that, rejected a request without thinking about who it had come from, he'd gotten his ass reamed good. Seems like everyone in this man's army had 'connections' anymore.

Then, a smile came to his blotchy face. Maybe there was a way to satisfy that request AND get rid of a few things cluttering up his warehouse. After all, having past-dated stuff in there had been part of what had been marked as a 'negative' on his performance report. Yeah, that would work! Clear out some of that shit AND get Rawlins off his back! He explained his plan to a skeptical Corporal James Moore.

"Look, Jimmy, no way can we allocate part of our maintenance for digging a new well or putting in new pipes, and I sure as hell 'm not sending an engineering team or anyone else up there to check it out! Budget is already way off balance, and believe you me, I heard about it plenty yesterday! Look, it's an old house; it's gonna have problems. Let the owners deal with that after the war!

"Yeah, I know they're bitching about the taste of the water and the scum it leaves in the glasses and sink and probably on their dainty, delicate skin. Hell, there's a war on; scummy water is better than no water, right? And who the hell KNOWS what's causing their problem?? Could be most anything, but my guess is still the well or maybe the old pipes. Anyhow, the way I see it, the real problem WE have is getting them to shut the hell up about it so we can go back to dealing with the OTHER bullshit requests we're getting right here on Base! We gotta maintain priorities here!"

His assistant was agreeable, at least on the surface, knowing it would be more peaceful that way. Still, he knew quite well that Sergeant Major Rawlins wasn't going to just forget about the request, he was going to get that lieutenant of theirs to file a complaint, and he also knew who was going to get yelled at later if that happened. Rossman did like to have a fall guy for any screwups, and Jimmy Moore was top of the list recently. It seems there were certain drawbacks to receiving 'Commendable' ratings on your review when your immediate superior received something quite different on his. He knew quite well he would never have received that nice rating if Rossman hadn't been on leave when the forms were filed; Sergeant Douglas had taken care of that, bless the man's fair and congenial spirit.

"Well, what DO we do? Last time we shrugged things off, Rawlins went to that Lieutenant of theirs, Garrison, and HE went to the Commander here and bitched up a storm and we got our asses handed to us. We've got to do something!" he reminded his boss, placing himself firmly at Rossman's side, showing his unswerving support and all. Yes, it rather turned his stomach, but some things just had to be done. As if echoing his thoughts, Rossman continued.

"So, we do 'something'. Look, remember what they tried to use in the mess hall to get rid of the crud, before they found out it didn't work so good except maybe on killing the roaches and ants? 'Miracle cleaner and disinfectant', my ass! Just about stripped the paint off the tables even cutting it ten to one like it says on the jugs. Softened the wood so much we had to scrape down a whole layer and let it all dry out before we could put another coat of paint on.

"Well, we got tons of that left in the warehouse. That should work, at least get Rawlins off our back. Get a load of that, put it in plain jugs so no one can see what it is, add some of that stinky stuff they gave us to hide the mildew smell in the barracks but only ended up having half the guys going on Sick Call cause of the headaches. You remember, that 'Just Like A Ray of Sunshine' shit. Mix it up; go give the well a good dose. Hell, use up our entire stock of both, give me some room back there! Then run the pumps a little, let it get into the pipes real good. That should shut them up!"

"You think that will fix the problem?" Jimmy Moore asked with a puzzled frown. Somehow, that donated disinfectant (from the manufacturer who found it wouldn't sell anywhere else due to its poor performance for the job it was intended, though it would have done quite well for stripping paint or perhaps etching concrete, not to mention its vile and corrosive stench) plus the overpowering artificial honeysuckle spray supposed to hide (if not eliminate) the presence of mold and mildew, didn't seem like something to be adding to someone's water supply.

"Hell, who knows? Stranger things have happened. Maybe it will; whatta we got to lose? I got a real good feeling about this, Jimmy; my gut says this is a real good solution, and I've learned to listen to my gut. Maybe we'll even get an award or something, that Noble Prize or whatever the hell they call that thing! Anyhow, we got better things to worry about than that bunch of misfits. Come on, Jimmy, get with it. Make it happen. Get the bozos off my ass."

And despite his misgivings, Jimmy Moore 'made it happen'.

Two weeks went by, the men at the Mansion, team and guards alike, drinking the kegged water generously given them by the village. As for bathing in the piped water from the well, it took a direct order from Garrison or Rawlins to make THAT happen, most of the men - guards and team alike - declaring themselves happier with the concentrated stench of sweaty, grimy, unwashed male bodies than the feel and smell of what was coming out of the water pipes anymore. Still, at least SOME showers were necessary, and they all got their share of that vile-smelling, abrasive liquid.

They were all thankful when they were given a break. A few sudden rain showers had the men vying for use of 'Mother Nature's Blessings', as the sign designated that open-air shower rigged in the back courtyard, and those not lucky enough to be far ahead enough in the line to most likely get there before the rain stopped resorted to stripping, handing around a couple bars of soap and scrubbing off with their tee's in the downpour. Garrison didn't have the heart to reprimand them, really wished it wouldn't have been seen as a breakdown in command for him to do the same. That damned water from the pipes made his skin itch like crazy!

The mission call was almost a relief.

 

{"What the hell? If this keeps up, we're going to have to have someone come rescue US!"}.

Garrison couldn't figure it out, but suddenly the whole team had lost their edge. Yes, including himself, he had to admit, though it took longer for him to notice it in himself than in his team. No one had been at their best for the past few days, just little things - little mistakes, little accidents, little acts of clumsiness that caused more breakage than usual. But after a poorly-timed parachute jump which garnered bruises and an array of bad tempers, he'd hoped things would settle down before they started the job.

That was not to be.

First, there had been the situation when Chief had failed to make his kill. Garrison had to move quickly to silence that guard with a quick lethal blow; it was just lucky he was close enough to do so before the alarm was sounded. He was still shaking his head over that, and Chief was sullen and frustrated and angry with himself. His knife had hit the target, yes, but not with its usual accuracy, and the soldier had not only remained alive but would have been able to cry out an alarm if Garrison hadn't interceded.

Once inside, Casino and Chief had disappeared to do their part upstairs, leaving Garrison below with Actor and Goniff. Actor was, of course, in the guise of a distinguished guest, as was Garrison, though Goniff was in a beverage attendant's livery of shimmering silver trimmed in royal blue. (Goniff had snorted at the sight. "Gonna look like one of those marzipan decorations on top of a vanilla cream!")

It should have been simple - Garrison keeping the two officers well occupied, Actor doing his usual schmoozing, acting as a general overseer. The primary action, at least downstairs, would be Goniff removing that wallet with the combination to the big safe in the local Kommandant's office, stage two of this job. Removing the wallet, grabbing the combination, replacing the wallet - for a pickpocket of Goniff's skills, a breeze.

Garrison had watched in sheer disbelief as Goniff fumbled the snatch, had had to make a second try at that wallet, which meant delaying til the pickpocket could switch clothes to a waiter's blue livery, and comb his hair in a very different manner than the previous sleeked-back style.

Yes, the mark had actually NOTICED the small man brushing against him; he hadn't realized an attempt had been made at picking his pocket, but Goniff had almost dropped that tray, which brought him the attention of not only the mark but those around him. It wouldn't do to have him be noticed, the same man at fingers' distance again.

The second time went better, but the now-promoted, mop-haired, spectacled waiter/pickpocket had a bead of sweat on his forehead as he moved away, his eyes behind those lenses blinking far too rapidly. The return was handled, hardly any more adroitly, though thankfully with Actor providing sufficient distraction to avoid the man from noticing. At least that was successful; Garrison had been pretty sure a third fumbled run would be noticed without fail.

{"Since when does Goniff miss an easy target like that? And when does he get rattled doing something that's almost second nature to him?"} Garrison wondered.

As for Actor? Garrison wasn't sure what the problem was there. It wasn't as if that disguise was ineffective so much as that the suave, aristocratic con man looked like he was on his deathbed, or perhaps should be. It hadn't seemed so bad in the tiny room where Actor had so carefully applied the makeup from his kit, the false moustache and the rest, but here, in the full light from the overheads and side sconces, he looked like he had been ill for a very long time and getting worse rapidly.

{"And it isn't just the bad makeup job, though I've never seen him DO one of those before, not splotchy and uneven like that is. Even his underlying skin tone, what shows through in spots, is gray, even has a greenish note to it. Hell, he looked better in that coffin when he was impersonating a corpse!"}. Garrison made a quick mental note to see that Actor got checked out when they got back home; maybe there was something there that needed to be dealt with. {"Or maybe,"} he consoled himself, {"perhaps that kit just needs to be replaced; maybe the foundation has gone stale or something."}

Well, at least the other two had seemed on key, or so Garrison had thought when they had headed off, silently fading into the shadows.

Then Garrison glanced casually at his watch and realized the minutes had just clicked away, and he should have gotten the thumbs-up a good several minutes before but hadn't. How hadn't he noticed that? How had he let the time slip away like that?? He felt a bead of sweat start to form on his own brow as he wondered what had gone wrong. They'd built in enough time, the safe Casino was breaking into was supposedly a cracker-box model, something the safecracker claimed he could open in his sleep.

Carefully he shifted his weight just to reassure himself that his revolver was still on his hip, and surprised not just himself but the two men he was talking to when he staggered just a bit, not to the point of losing his balance entirely, but certainly apparent to his fellow guests.

Smoothly recovering his balance, he gave a quick apology, a hastily-cobbled together patter about "an old wound. It sometimes gives me trouble, you see," and he regained control, but the chill remained.

{"What the hell just happened??! And what the hell is the delay?"}

In the meantime, Casino was doing some internal swearing of his own. His mind was telling him this was just a little three tumbler job, no sweat - his eyes agreed. Well, except for that odd symbol he kept seeing, around the model plate, on the silver rim of the dial, even embedded in the dark skin of the safe itself. It was there, that weird figure, like a snake or a worm trying to wiggle itself free, but then, when he looked more closely, it wasn't in the same spot. {"Shit! It's like it's moving from one place to another! What the hell??!"}

"Casino! What's the problem?" Chief hissed from the corner where he was keeping watch. Part of the young man's mind was still worrying about that missed throw, but enough remained focused on the job that he didn't miss Casino staring at that safe like he'd never seen one before, his fingers straying here and there, but NOT working his magic on that dial like was supposed to be happening.

Casino started at that harsh voice, realized he'd been almost daydreaming, wondering what a worm, no, a bunch of worms (!) would be doing living in the skin of a metal safe. Shaking his head violently, he gave a quick "give me a minute," and refocused his unsteady eyes on the dial, leaned in, took a deep breath and refused to let that worm {"never seen eyelashes that long on a worm - hell, I think it's a snake maybe!,"} he thought to himself as he forced his attention back to the job at hand.

"Casino??" came impatiently from the corner, with worry adding its own flavor.

A hard grunt of frustration, then one of triumph, "got it!" He swept the contents clear, tucking them all in his inner pocket. Luckily this wasn't one of those 'sort and only take a certain thing' kind of a job; this was the clear and run type. He had the uneasy feeling the former would have been beyond him right now.

"Alright, Indian, let's get the hell out of here. Warden's probably shittin bricks by now!"

 

Then {"FINALLY!"} came the signal, and with a quick glance Garrison collected an uneasy Goniff from the side of the room, and they each made their separate ways to their appointed exits. Actor missed the signal, though, talking in a desultory manner to a lovely lady in burgundy satin who seemed to be less gratified than alarmed at the way the man was leaning towards her.

{"Can't blame her; he looks like he's about to pass out at her feet, or maybe throw up on them,"} Garrison noted, as he hurriedly sent the pickpocket back to fetch Actor.

"Just touch his arm, lean in and whisper "le message" and head to the side hallway", Garrison murmured.

Goniff frowned. "In ENGLISH? Don't seem like the best thing right 'ere, w'at with everyone else speaking French and all," he whispered back.

Garrison gave a tiny huff of reluctant amusement; Goniff never HAD caught on to much of the foreign languages he and Actor bandied about with such ease. "It means the same in both, Goniff, just the accent on the last part, not the first. Just go. You're just giving him a private wake-up call, that's all, not holding a conversation."

Garrison watched as Actor started at the interruption, almost as if he hadn't noticed Goniff's obsequious approach, but obediently offered his apologies to the lady and casually made his way out of the room, obviously striving to keep in a straight line. To the casual observer, it would have appeared the elegantly-clad man had indulged far too heavily of the liquid offerings, though Garrison knew Actor had limited himself to two glasses of champagne.

Gathering his team around him, Garrison confirmed they had the goods, and signaled them to head out. {"Debriefing on THIS one is going to be challenging!"}

That wasn't the end of it, of course, though nothing else major went wrong. Just odd little stumbles, awkward movements, transportation that wasn't so eager to yield to Chief's nimble fingers, some fumbling on Casino's part before that second safe had opened, even with the combination Goniff had retrieved.

Of course, the next night there was the added oddity of an obviously pissed off female contact glaring daggers at Casino's back as they left the safe house for the exit point. The safe cracker had resolutely ignored those whispered words she'd flung after him, just grateful none of the others were close enough to heard. No, he didn't speak French, but he had a good idea what those words meant and he did NOT need the grief he'd get from his team mates if Actor heard and interpreted that taunt for them.

On the trip back there was none of the usual back-and-forth between the men, not even any recriminations over the various screwups, almost as if they each had too much on their own minds to bother with any of that now.

{"I'll get them back, maybe see that they get twenty-four hours leave right up front before putting them back in training. Maybe that will settle them down,"} Garrison thought as they ran for the waiting plane. He hoped that would do the trick; something sure as hell needed to!

He looked around at the men slumped back against the rumbling walls of the plane.

Chief leaned back, eyes staring into space, sullen, thoughts turned firmly inward, though the impression Garrison got was that those thoughts were unpleasant, or at least highly-troubling ones.

Casino had a heavy frown, his worried eyes moving over the wall opposite him as if he was following the trail of something constantly moving; those shudders did nothing to enhance the impression of sheer horror. Garrison decided then and there, whatever Casino was watching, he did NOT want to see!

Goniff was studying his fingers as if he'd never seen them before, rubbing them, holding them up at eye level and putting them through all kinds of contortions before giving a frustrated huff and clenching them tightly in his lap for a few minutes before starting the whole process all over again.

Actor had his eyes tightly shut, almost as if in pain, swallowing heavily, and giving an occasional shudder. His unhealthy skin tones were becoming even more so, with the reason obvious when the con man made the unprecedented move of asking Goniff for one of his motion-sickness doses. Luckily they worked as well for him as they did for their pickpocket. In fact, Garrison was a little sorry there had only been the two left in Goniff's pocket, one now firmly in the cheek of both his pickpocket and his con man; he wouldn't have minded trying one himself.

Garrison was uneasily wondering what it would take to settle HIM down; his balance was still off, his vision had developed an uncomfortable flutter along the right side, and his headache was growing at a rate he was very unhappy with. Somehow he knew a few hours of sound sleep, his usual self-prescribed (if not often achieved) remedy for anything that went wrong, wasn't going to do the trick this time.

 

Well, they'd gotten their leave, and were now back, congregating to give their usual update, otherwise known to Sergeant Major Gil Rawlings as 'their bragging session'.

They sat around the big table in the Common Room, as they'd done a hundred times before. That table, that room, had seen and heard it all, just about, during their tenure - loud laughter, angry shouting, bitter complaints, weary bemoaning of their failures, triumphant gloating over their successes, lecturing and arguing, teasing and taunting, some heart-felt sharing, even more than a few physical clashes. It had certainly seen plenty of bragging and story-telling, some true, some perhaps not so true. This time, well . . .

Casino had dreaded this moment, had even discussed the matter firmly with himself before he met the guys after their separately-enjoyed night of leave. He had stayed in London, as had Chief and Actor. Goniff had hitched a ride back to Brandonshire with Garrison.

{"Anymore that damned Limey's like a damned homing pigeon; if Meghada's at the Cottage, that's where he's more than likely gonna be headed. I don't get it, but what can you do? Maybe if she wasn't such a good cook, but she is. Yeah, that's probably it, more than anything else."}

Anyway, Casino had more important things to worry about - one very specific thing, in fact.

{"No one's gonna know. Just act like usual when you meet up with the guys. Hell, you've told it all a hundred times or more - how good, how hot, how wet, how hard - how she was so happy she just about yelled the rafters down - so this time, maybe you just go from memory and fill in the gaps a little. Just relax, okay? It's no big deal."}.

Casino was talking to himself as he hurried to the point they'd agreed to meet before the trek back to the Mansion, and hopefully 'himself' was listening.

'Himself' sure as hell hadn't been listening last night, THAT was for certain! He made a note to cross Carol's name and number out of his little black book; he just wouldn't want to face her, not after that fiasco! Not after all he'd done, after all SHE'D done to try and get the action going. {"Hell, might as well had been reading a tech manual on that new machine gun,"} he thought glumly.

Remembering Marie, that sassy little French dame at the Safe House that last job out, remembering the angry pout on her face when he'd sheepishly pulled his pants back up and headed out the bedroom door, he figured if HER number had been in his black book, he would be crossing her off too. Of course, the chance of them ever crossing paths again was slim to none; he didn't even remember the name of the village he'd met her in - it hadn't seemed important at the time, and frankly, there wasn't much he WANTED to remember either.

He'd figured the problem then was the stress of the mission (though that had never been the case before), or maybe his instincts telling him there was something a little off about sweet Marie, maybe she wasn't so trustworthy. But then, he'd never had that weird problem with a safe before either, never seen one that had that unnerving snake-like tracing that kept moving under his eyes and his fingers. That was enough to put ANY guy off his stride, no doubt about it.

Yeah, he'd figured that was it, until last night with Carol. And while he'd tried, when he got back to his own room, to tell himself the problem was with HER, not him, it wasn't easy making that stick, no matter how eager he was to accept that. Especially when a little handy 'hand work' of his own failed to get even a whimper of recognition from what he'd always considered his best, most reliable pal.

{"I know the little Limey ragged me about tryin to wear it out before its time. Hate to think he was right!"}.

He put that uneasy, extremely disturbing thought out of his mind as soon as he recognized it.

{"Nah, she just didn't turn me on enough. Some dames just don't have the knack, no matter how good they're built!"}

Now, back in the Common Room of the Mansion, rearing back in his chair, a smug, well-satisfied look carefully plastered on his face, Casino enthused over his night with the big-busted blonde with the bee-stung lips.

"I'm telling you, guys, it was the best! Hottest I can remember in quite awhile, even better than that little mademoiselle last week! Thought for awhile we were gonna have the landlord banging on the door, complaining, what with all the screaming she was doing! Damn, that was one hot broad, and boy oh boy, did she appreciate what old Casino could do for her! She's gonna be walking around bow-legged for a couple a days, that's for sure!"

 

Actor smiled and nodded, hiding his own thoughts, certainly hiding that surge of pure envy.

Still, he knew what he would have usually done after hearing Casino brag on himself, his abilities - match that story with a recounting of his much more elegant, if equally lusty and satisfying evening with the very beautiful Lady Claudia Mills.

{"And I really wish I could,"} he admitted ruefully to himself. But he couldn't, not with any veracity - could only hope to forget the entire dismal experience. He had hopes Lady Claudia would forget, as well, or at least forgive, but she really wasn't the forgiving type, he expected. Hopefully she wasn't the gossiping type either, though he did not know that for sure.

Still, of the implicit promises of his invitation, he HAD fulfilled most, indeed, all but one of them. A fine dinner with fine wine (well, at least as fine as was available at this time) in fine surroundings. Dancing at one of the more exclusive venues for such. An elegant suite at one of the finer hotels, with champagne awaiting them. All of that went according to plan. After that, however . . .

Sometimes he wondered if he was getting old. No, he no longer expected a marathon, nor even a series of shorter encounters, not without allowing himself at least a brief (well, perhaps no longer as brief as once was the case) recovery period. Still, to have failed entirely, not even an indication that his manhood remembered what it was to be used for, or even that it was still attached, that was something he had never imagined would befall him. Any more than he had ever expected his eyes, his hands, his judgment to so misapply a disguise, a fairly simple one that he had done any number of times. He'd caught a glimpse of himself in that long mirror as he exited the well-lit ballroom and was truly appalled. {"I looked like a poorly-prepared corpse!"}

Still, there were other expectations, most immediately those of his waiting team mates. He knew his role quite well, and while leisurely lighting his pipe, gave a smug, refined smile and proceeded to fulfill those.

"I am sure, Casino, but the lady I was entertaining, the Lady Claudia, while equally appreciative, I assure you, was far too refined to be drawing the attentions of the hotel management in such a vulgar manner. Although, considering the hotels you frequent, I am rather surprised ANYTHING would have gained their attention, other than discovering your payment for the hourly rate was inadequate. So easy to mistake a quarter for a half-dollar, is it not?"

That had the looked-for response, an indignant protest from Casino, an appreciative sly glance from Goniff ranging from Actor to the safecracker and back again. Chief might have been mildly amused, but with him it was often hard to tell.

 

Chief WAS somewhat amused, but not as much as if he didn't have other things on his mind. He mostly sat back, listening, wavering between trying to cobble together something that would serve as his entry, and trying to figure out what had gone wrong with his original plan.

No, he admited to himself, he didn't really have anything spectacular to add, actually hadn't sought out any companionship, certainly none he would discuss here.

Well, he'd thought about it, even gone to that place Goniff had cautiously given him the intro to, after Chief had just as cautiously brought up the subject during a private drink. He'd introduced himself to the bartender, Tony, like Goniff had said, used Goniff's coded intro like Goniff had insisted he do, after Chief had declined Goniff's suggestion he accompany him, "just to be on the safe side, Chiefy." When Chief declined his company, Goniff worried, and was almost to the point of insisting on hanging around "just in case."

Well, he didn't see why Goniff's plans for the leave time should be screwed up just for him, and if he REALLY screwed this up, he didn't really want his friend to be a witness. Bad enough him having to live with making a damned fool of himself without knowing Goniff had seen the whole thing go down.

So that was the compromise they'd come up with - Goniff would send him to the safest, most controlled spot he knew, set someone reliable to looking out for him, giving him the nod as to what was what - and Chief, in return, would follow Goniff's sound advice to the letter.

"No, the Silver Mask and the like, that ain't my bint, never 'as been, not w'en it was my choice. And before you go dragging 'im into it, Craig don't count, you know; that's something totally different, though don't go askin me 'ow or why, cause I 'aven't really figured that out, cept it just IS, just like it being different with 'Gaida. 'Ave a feeling you might find it the same, Chiefy, but that aint for me to say, especially with - well, with the way things are. But, see, I've been around more blocks in London than the maps could ever get around to showing. There's some I don't ever want you even glancing down, so won't do to 'ave you go adventuring on your own. You promise that, I'll try to see you don't come a cropper.

"Now, at the Silver Mask, Tony'll look out for you, Chiefy, make sure you don't take a 'eader with a wrong un. Got 'is sister out of a bind, once - river-bound she was, through no fault of 'er own, little Dulcie; 'e owes me a favor or two. I'll make a call, explain things. You listen to 'im, though, you 'ear me??! Don't go making me ice someone cause you did something stupid and didn't listen."

Well, he'd listened, if not totally grasping all the apparent nuances of that round-about explanation. Still, he appreciated the lecture for what it was, a sincere caring for him and his well-being, and now watched for the nod or quick shake of his head from a watchful Tony, did as he was told.

But after all that effort, after finally getting the nerve to try figuring a few things out, he just couldn't seem to work up the enthusiasm.

He'd had a couple drinks, took a good look around, observed the action - the flirting, the 'display' as Goniff put it "the showing of those w'at are looking, those putting it out there to be looked at; the ones w'at are serious, the ones only playing at the game. Like them big birds at the zoo, peacocks, you know - they all make a show, but if you look close, you can see the ones w'at really mean it."

He spotted one trouble-in-the-making even before Tony had given him a firm 'thumbs-down'; though the smile was engaging, those eyes held a malevolent, even gloating intent that only a fool would trust. He watched as the bartender gently steered one guy in uniform back out the door, pointing to an establishment further down the street, returning to the bar shaking his head with amusement at the befuddled look in the confused soldier's eyes. He watched a few hook-ups, saw how it was all managed in a venue he wasn't familiar with.

{"Different in some ways, maybe, but not so much,"} he thought as he scratched at the peeling skin on his arm. He was almost wishing he was a snake, just shed the whole itching mess at one time, instead of a few square inches at a time.

He looked around again, more closely. Yeah, there were a couple there that kinda caught his eye. One in particular with dark wavy hair, eyes like rich dark chocolate, and a solid muscular build that tempted him maybe more than just a little, seemed familiar, spoke to him somehow even without words, but not enough to push past that odd feeling of indifference where he'd expected to feel something, well, something other than that feeling of brooding lassitude.

{"Acting more like it wants to yawn more than sneeze"} he thought with some rueful amusement, {"much less anything else"}. If he'd reacted in a more positive way, if his body had given him the signal, maybe he might have gone over, introduced himself to Dark Eyes, but it didn't, just as it hadn't at the hotel bar earlier with its complement of willing females in tight dresses, and soon the object of his mild attention left with someone else.

Not feeling any lingering need to stay, after paying his tab, he left, ignoring the looks of interest he was getting from some of the patrons, the look of regretful apology from Tony, the bartender.

He was gone by the time Tony picked up the phone, made that phone call Goniff had asked for, "out and gone he is, mate, and alone. I warded off the dangerous ones, though he seems to have a fairly keen eye himself, and the one or two I would have trusted with him, nothing seemed to click. No, I put Jem to following him, making sure he gets back to his digs safe as a newly minted coin. A likeable one, he is. Were I a few years younger - well, I'm not, and likely Jem would have a fit and a half, right? He pretty much wants me keeping my eyes where they belong, you know? Have to say, I expect the same from him, of course."

Chief took his time getting back to the hotel, feeling a shadow on him, but recognizing no harm intended. Still, at that convenient alley he'd slid into the shadows, snapped a quick arm around the neck of one gliding along behind.

"You're following me. I know you, mister?"

That got a low, surprisingly goodnatured chuckle, as much as the man could manage with the tight grip Chief had on his throat.

"Name's Jem. Tony set me to seeing you got back to your den safe and sound. Seems he promised an old friend you'd come to no harm, and when Tony gives his word, it's set in stone. Much like his head, most times, but there's worse traits in a man, I admit. You must be something special; giving up a favor owed, especially one as big as that one, one held for that many years - that's not a small thing, you know. Like solid money in the bank, a favor like that held in reserve. Hope you appreciate it, and him."

{"Goniff, you are SUCH a mother hen! First Tony, now this one,"} he thought with amused appreciation for his team mate's watchful eye even at a distance.

"Yeah, I do appreciate it, it and him. You gonna follow me all the way back to the hotel, Jem?"

And yes, he was, and yes, he did, even to giving a cheery wave as Chief headed in the door.

Once back at the hotel, he'd listened to the music in the lounge for awhile, gently brushed off the overtures of a pretty, if slightly tipsy brunette, then had one last drink and headed off to bed. Alone, and oddly content to be so.

As he drifted off to sleep, he had to wonder. No, he wasn't as much of a horny dog as Casino, but to pass over three good chances? Had to make him wonder just what it would take, to get him really interested. To make him dive into the deep waters he knew existed all around him.

 

Now, sitting at the round table across from Casino and the guys, one thing was for sure - while he might have admitted "I just wasn't in the mood; had a couple drinks and an early night," he sure as hell wasn't going to tell where he had those drinks, or what his intentions had been when he'd started out. He didn't need the grief, frankly, and he sure as heck didn't need the questions in Casino's dark eyes - questions Chief still didn't have the answers for.

Goniff wouldn't tell, wouldn't even ask, not the particulars anyway, not after he'd given a reassuring nod and half-smile at the Cockney's anxious "and everything alright with you, Chiefy?".

Oh, he didn't write off another visit to the Silver Mask; maybe next time he would have more need, enough to cross that line, enough to purposefully and knowingly blur the face and form of someone sharing the night with him. Enough to know more, maybe enough to understand a little better.

Though, thinking about Goniff's words, that comment about Garrison - "And Craig don't count, you know; that's something totally different, though don't go askin me 'ow or why, cause I 'aven't really figured that out, cept it just IS, just like it being different with 'Gaida. 'Ave a feeling you might find it the same," he was starting to get the idea that Goniff just could be right. Maybe the Silver Mask just wasn't what he was looking for, wouldn't substitute for what he was looking for, not when maybe what he was looking for was a lot closer to home. {"Maybe it's not really a 'what', but a 'who', just like with Goniff."}. Time would tell.

Still, when they looked at him expectantly, he shrugged. He knew the drill, knew what was expected, and it wasn't the first time he'd improvised.

"Was okay. Started at Rubins and got lucky right off the bat. A big blonde - more Casino's type than mine, maybe, but she was real eager, edged out the redhead and didn't want to stop pressing, so I figured why not since Pappy wasn't there to take care of her. Left her place afterwards, had a couple of drinks in the lounge at Marchant's. Henri's friend Jean was there, playing piano, so I stayed and listened for awhile. That guy really knows his way around those ivories, I'll say that. Cute little brunette there had some ideas, figured I might as well since I had another round built up in me by then. After she left, around 1, I rolled over and went to sleep. Yeah, it was okay."

That got him an envious look from Actor and Casino, which he found a little surprising. He figured he shouldn't have, not considering what they'd said THEIR night had been like and how lame his had sounded, even if it HAD been true, which it pretty much wasn't. A odd thought ran through his mind, {"maybe there's as much truth to their stories as mine??? Nah, not likely, not with those two! They know just what they want and just how to get it."}. To tell the truth, he was a little envious of that, himself.

 

Goniff gave them his usual smirk, rolled his eyes and chuckled low in his throat. Stretching nonchalantly, somehow involving his whole body in that sinuous action, somewhat like a well-satisfied cat (which went along beautifully with the smug expression on his face), he lifted his glass and saluted the other three in good humor.

"Good thing for me I aint competing with you blokes for any award or medal or such. You'd beat me out by a running mile, you would. No, just a nice quiet evening at 'ome, that's w'at I 'ad, so to speak anyway. Nothing out of the ordinary. Not that I 'ave any complaints, mind you! Never do, not at the Cottage; but nothing special, nothing to go shouting from the rooftops about."

How he managed that disclaimer, all the while giving the unspoken impression of a night that took all of theirs, wrapped them up together, and then surpassed them by a mile and a half, they had never been able to figure out. Still, that was the result, and it was enough to draw slightly envious looks from the other three. Each of them KNEW they were lying, at least to some degree; they had a feeling he was too, but more likely in the other direction.

From Garrison, quietly reading in a highbacked chair off to the side, that disclaimer got the pickpocket only a carefully bland look, neither envious or challenging or doubting. Just - a steady look, leaving the interpretation open to any who might observe.

He, too, wondered how Goniff could say so much, and so little - CLAIM so little, and yet so much, all at the same time, especially while - - -

{"Well, come to think of it, while telling the absolute unswerving truth,"} he had to admit to himself.

It HAD been a quiet, uneventful evening at the Cottage, even their accustomed passion stepping aside without pause or hesitation for the gentle, easy companionship, the shared warmth they'd both come to connect with that place, with the redhead who lived there, and with each other.

Garrison thought back to the evening, and gave a quiet, private smile. Somehow that description of Goniff's, taken at face value, didn't sound all that appealing, though there was nothing he would have changed about the evening, nothing at all. Even the unexpected absence of physical desire hadn't diluted the pleasure involved. If anything, that had perhaps given a special sheen to the evening, as if allowing them to focus even more intently on the quieter intimacy brought about with the sharing of the common-place unroiled by the more heated sort of exchange.

It had started with dinner. Well, no, actually, it had started with a shower, as Meghada had kissed each of them upon their joint arrival but then wrinkled her nose.

"What on earth do you have on? It can't be aftershave; no one would dare sell something that eye-watering. My shower awaits, gentlemen. I'm sure we will all be much happier with the results."

She had been away for awhile, since before the water situation had gone so far south, and this was all quite new to her.

Garrison laughed and ruefully explained the water situation, while Goniff peeled off eagerly to take first advantage of that offer.

"And AJ is testing that brew? I'd offer my facilities, Craig, for all of you, but the water level isn't all that high here either. And with the training . . . Still, let's give that a try, at least once a day. That can NOT be good for a person. Look, it's like a powder on your skin!" as she rubbed her hand along his throat, collecting the faintly-gritty debris on her fingertips, grey-green in hue. Looking at it, Garrison remembered the color of Actor's skin, that corpse-like appearance, and the pieces started to click into place.

Goniff was back, hair still sleek with residual dampness, and Garrison headed off to enjoy the experience himself. Yes, a much better start to the evening!

Once back and dry, they sat down to dinner, nothing fancy but tasty and hearty. Then they settled in the sitting room for a drink and a discussion of that new book they'd just gotten a very few chapters into that had left the two men agreeing to disagree in their assessment of its worth. No, it wouldn't have worked with Actor, but it did with them.

It seems Garrison had found it not in his preferred style, necessarily, but still "philosophically challenging and morally uplifting".

Goniff had snorted in amused derision and claimed "that's only because you insist on thinking everything to death, Craig, along with thinking everyone's taking the 'igh road like you tend to. Bloke likely ain't saying NEAR as much as you think 'e is, or even maybe W'AT you think 'e is! Sounds more like 'e's just rambling on, like Actor gets to doing, just to 'ear 'imself, you know?

"Reminds me of all those w'at thought 'Moby Dick' was saying a world and more of 'igh-flying thoughts, though most not about the same things, but all sorts. 'Eard it said once, old 'erman told someone w'en they asked 'im to set the record straight as to which was right, 'e flat out told them - "it's just a book about a bleedin' w'ale, boys! Don't get your knickers in such a twist!""

He grinned in wicked pleasure when Garrison sputtered indignantly over his drink, and added with an innocent look that was truly one of his best, "don't know it's true, mind you, but that's w'at I've 'eard. 'Eard it might've been about that fancy piece w'at lived on the next place over, just as well, the one 'e went on picnics with and drank champagne and ate cherries out under the trees and did a sight more with, most likely. Can't imagine a lady like that would appreciate being thought of as a white w'ale, but never can tell. You know the toffs; 'ave an odd take on things sometimes! Might ask Actor about it one of these days; imagine 'e as an opinion or dozen or so on the subject."

Garrison roared at the imagined look on Actor's face if Goniff did that very thing. Actor was still clinging to his illusions of who and what Goniff really was, and every glimpse into the other side (one of the many sides) of their pickpocket shattered the con man's nerves for hours, if not days, afterwards.

Meghada just snorted and laughed silently to herself as she listened to their congenial arguments. She'd not found the book particularly uplifing, but had been mildly amused at the hidden jokes and innuendos tucked in by the Scottish writer, (one personally known to her), little tidbits expressed in sly colloquialisms and local tall-tale references coached in high-sounding language that perhaps only one far more familiar with the language and odder by-ways of those depicted would pick up on. {"Well, Jordy Brewster, by that name or any of the others he likes to use, always DID have a delight in twisting the tails of the literati, especially if he could keep them from catching on for awhile!"}

Finally, as they argued over yet another parable, one that told of "a stranger who, lacking proper understanding, removed the shepherd's mark of protection from the favored one, that in turn leading to the prize ewe's wandering astray, thus the stranger earning the shepherd's cudgel'd wrath", they realized she was having all she could do to keep from giggling at them and their efforts.

Giggling not being her usual response, they'd demanded an explanation of her amusement, and their reaction afterwards was typical - Goniff was tickled pink, Garrison embarrassed to the same degree.

"Don't seem fair, some'ow, keeping all the good stuff as w'ere only SOME can figure out it's supposed to be funny," Goniff complained, though grinning over at the expression on Craig's face. "Though, bet the reviews should be interesting; wonder 'ow far off the mark THEY'LL be? Think many will catch on?"

"Well," Craig admitted sheepishly, "that DOES prove Goniff's point, I suppose, of intention versus perception. Here I was thinking the writer was making a very thoughtful commentary on the challenging state of the pastoral experience and pastoral responsibilities of a rural minister when faced with the modern temptations his parishioners face. Now I learn he's giving the punch line to a off-color joke!

"Somehow that cri de coeur "now I must lay hand upon my staff and once again search out the lost sheep closest to my heart!" takes on a totally different meaning for the concept of 'involved and loving shepherd and his flock'. Thankfully you explained that before I asked Reverend Standish if he'd read the book and what HIS thoughts were on the subject! I shudder to even think!"

That resolved, they'd turned to music, this time agreeing unanimously that 'Rhapsody in Blue' was the perfect accompaniment to the evening. Music led to one last drink, then a quiet intertwining on that huge bed, warmth and the familiar touch of skin-on-skin and the sound of soft breathing in the night being all that was needed or wanted for that time.

It wasn't always so, of course. Yes, shared passion was their more usual conclusion to an evening together; still, it was not always so, and that night none felt the need for more than what they already shared, and each woke with a smile on their face for the comfort of the night and the company. Certainly, none felt they'd been slighted, or shorted in any manner, or felt there was anything untoward about the events of the evening.

Eventually, quite a bit later, a very wise man, Henry Mitchell, would remark that there were things other than sex and passion that had value, and even moments in a life that held import and moments of interest aside from those things. They would not have quarreled with his conclusions, then or later.

 

Now, watching Goniff play the others, watching the others laugh and mock and tease, Garrison had the odd feeling of seeing only part of what there was to see. That residual headache, the feeling of being slightly off-balance had faded for a few hours, but now was coming back, enough he didn't quite trust his judgement as much as he would prefer.

{"Wasn't there something about Actor, something . . . Oh, well, it will come to me in time. Meanwhile, I've got that appointment with AJ in the morning to see if the test results on the water came back with anything interesting. At least Colonel Anderson DID send word he'd be sending us a water tanker til we get the problem resolved. There are times when it certainly doesn't hurt that he's Meghada's distant cousin, as well as being Major Richards' old university roommate, and thus well disposed toward us!"}

 

"Alright, gather round. We've got a job to do."

The men groaned, with Casino protesting for the lot of them

"Come on, Warden. Didn't we just get back from one? Or don't you count that tumbling out of a freaking airplane into the middle of a guerrilla match-off and almost getting our asses shot off?"

"I might, Casino, but since we bailed out of that airplane because it was shot down, not because we were headed to that particular area for that particular reason, HQ doesn't, since we didn't do the job we headed out to do," Garrison replied dryly.

And that was the sad truth. That little misadventure had resulted in them returning in less than four days, instead of the two weeks minimum predicted. HQ was STILL being a little pissy about that, but what the hell were they supposed to do? That airplane, a two engine model with neither engine functioning at the moment and no likelihood of either resuming their designed purpose either, a plane was going nowhere but down, that much being obvious even to the outraged pilot - what choice did they have but to bail? They'd taken the pilot with them, since it seemed counterproductive to lose him along with his bird, for which the tall Canadian was more than a little grateful, which was a welcome relief from the scowls given them by HQ for 'blowing' the mission.

Yeah, in a way they had. Well, what could you expect when the bail-out point was four countries away from where that scheduled mission was to be undertaken, and the timetable left them NO time to get there before that shipment of weapons was long gone.

Still, Garrison acknowledged, on a 1" scaled map it perhaps looked much less daunting than it looked to six men on foot, at least it had to the disapproving officer handling the debriefing. His jaw still ached from clenching it so hard during that dressing down he'd been given by the desk officer in charge of the debriefing. If he envisioned setting that same officer to hiking those same miles {"long, dusty, painful miles!"}, it was a private indulgence, not shared with anyone except perhaps Goniff and Meghada over a well-deserved drink.

But this - this wasn't a job from HQ, but one that self-same Colonel Joe Anderson, Base Commander at the closest base, had just called him about - supervising the truck and pumps and crew being sent to drain and flush out the well and the pipes, every drop of the contaminated water being trucked away (hopefully to be disposed of safely somehow), and the fresh water tankers being sent to bring the well up to its normal level. AND one additional tanker to give them some slack til the pipes ran clear and sweet once again.

He still remembered that stunned response from Joe Anderson.

"My God, Garrison! I read that report from Doctor Riley and the people he had analyzing that devil's brew, and frankly, I'm surprised any of you are still standing! The list of ingredients alone would give you pause, not to mention the warnings on the original labels of those ingredients. And mixing them? At the risk of repeating myself, OH MY GOD! Thank heaven you weren't actually drinking that stuff, but even washing in it is more than I can even conceive of doing!!!"

Yes, Garrison hadn't been overly pleased at that report either, though certain things were making more sense to him now that he had read it, matched it against certain incidents and behaviors.

But as for this new 'job', somehow, he figured the guys wouldn't mind so much once they heard the particulars. Well, once they stopped cursing at the background details.

"So - what? They just mixed up some different kinds of whatever-the-hell-it-is leftover cleaning stuff from the warehouse, dumped that shit in the well and ran it through the system, figured BAM! it would fix the problem??! Without knowing what the problem was in the first place??!

"Shit, if it was just what Doc Riley says Old Howie claims, that freak crop of mushroom fungus that shows up every ten years or so in that area behind the well, something that makes the water taste like crap but doesn't hurt you and pretty much goes away on its own after a few weeks, we'd a been a hell of a lot better off without their help!"

Casino snorted in disgust, and continued to rant. "Of course, since it coulda been that seven-year wasp that Mrs. Wilson was talking about, the one that flies in, makes its nests down at the water line, now THAT'D be a different story. Especially with her saying we'd probably have been dead within a day or two if that had been the case. But, even if it WASN'T that mushroom stuff, OR the wasps, even if it was something different, those bozos really thought it was better to do THAT, throw in all that crap, than to figure out what would really HELP??!"

The safecracker shook his head in disgusted disbelief. The others were pretty much on the same page. Sometimes the simplistic level of thinking at the upper levels just boggled the mind.

"That's about it, Casino. In fact, according to Howie, with the mushrooms - the locals used to beg a jug or two when the fungus would hit; the water had the reputation for being an ideal spring tonic, a real 'clear the system' one."

Remembering the hours he and the others had spent in the john during that first period, before the addition of the 'cure', he could well believe it! Mrs. Wilson hadn't mentioned any pluses to the wasp visits, though. Well, "three sips and you were being laid out in salt and lavender" didn't really leave a lot of room for pluses.

"Dr. Riley, AJ, was livid, I can tell you that. After he finished filling in Colonel Anderson about the whole thing, the results he got on the test on that doctored water, the mastermind of this little project has been transferred, hopefully somewhere where his inclination to experiment with cleaning solutions will be kept in check.

"AJ says he wants to talk to each of you and the guards as well. Check for any odd reactions, unusual symptoms, anything that has seemed off in any way. He said from what the lab guys told him, a mix like that could do just about anything. He's particularly concerned about any reduced sensitivity, or blurred or delayed reaction. He'll probably want you to test yourselves, just against your usual reflexes and mobility and reactions. Nothing elaborate, but the more he knows and understands, the better he can help with any residual effects. Just make him aware of any danger signs. He's got a sheet of questions, so go along with him on this. I've gone through it, and a few eye-openers there, I can tell you! And anything else you might have noticed, even if it's not on the list - for you or one of the others, and no clowning around; let him know - you need to play it straight on this," knowing how they could get carried away with the teasing. Still, they seemed to be taking this every bit as seriously as he could hope. He'd been embarrassingly upfront with Riley in his own interview.

"You mean, like Chiefy maybe 'aving a little trouble with 'is throwing, and Casino with 'ow 'is fingers 'andle the dials? Our eyes maybe playing tricks on us, not 'aving the control over our 'ands like we normally would? That sort of thing?" Goniff asked with a frown.

Well, he'd noticed his sticky fingers were a little off even before he'd almost blown that simple pickpocketing job for Garrison, before AND after - enough he'd hesitated to try for a few choice little bits that last trip out for fear of fumbling the snatch and bringing trouble down on them. (And hadn't THAT been a shame, with all the lovely and expensive sparklies just sitting about smiling up at him, just begging for him to give them a ride home! He'd hated like anything to disappoint them, but he just couldn't see taking the chance.) And that makeup job Actor had done for the con, it had taken a lot longer than usual to get together, and still didn't look NEAR right, not that you could tell HIM that, most likely. Chief was still muttering over his blades, had even accused Casino of messing with them, ruining their balance. Casino? Well, he kept blinking like he had something in his eyes all the time.

"That's right. Or anything else that just doesn't seem to be responding quite like you'd expect," Garrison offered. He knew he'd had a few things to mention to AJ, that loss of balance, the headaches and such. Happily, he'd been able to give a negative to any sexual abnormalities or malfunctions, part of that long questionnaire. A quiet, companionable evening versus a hot and passionate one, that wasn't an abnormality, just an expected occasional normal variation of the established norm. He was damned glad of that; he would hate to think of the repercussions of any tampering there!!

He noticed the quick introspective frowns, downturned mouths at that, and wondered just what had struck a nerve with each of them. Well, with three, anyway; Goniff still seemed to be studying his errant fingers with a frown, as if asking THEIR imput on the question.

Still, no one said anything, so he didn't press. He knew AJ Riley would be doing plenty of that, trying to help with any residual effects. Hopefully nothing would be needed other than the "drink lots of good clean water, Craig, all of you. And there are some teas that help with removing impurities in the system - I'll see those are made available to all of you as well."

"Danger signs, you mean. Yes, we will think it over carefully, and be sure to bring any such to the good doctor's attention, Craig," Actor assured Garrison. {"If I remember my history correctly, a flag flying at half-mast is an established sign of distress, among other things. Yes, as embarrassing as it might be, I do believe I must discuss that with Dr. Riley as well."}

It might have comforted him if he had realized he was not the only one thinking similar thoughts, but of course, that would be the LAST thing they would bring up for discussion in this company. Somehow, no matter how much else they might share, 'flags flying at half-mast' just didn't make the cut.