Collin studied his family around the breakfast table, relieved that for at least this meal, Niles, Marta, Par and Gwen ate on the other side of the house. Dinners they usually shared, but that should end when the new house was finished in a few weeks.
“Daddy,” Kayden asked, her voice low. “I wondered if Michael and I could take off for the day. I’ve got to keep Sam occupied for the next two weeks anyway, or Skyler will be too late when he arrives.”
Michael shot her a surprised look, but then said, “There are a few dragon heads in the loft we can take to Capitol if you don’t need me today, Collin.”
“No. I don’t need you. Go ahead.” Jake had told him about their discussion last night, and Collin was actually relieved that Michael seemed against any unnecessary surgery. But perhaps the couple did need a day alone.
Michael asked Kayden how many heads Sam could carry in addition to both of them, and they decided to take both Sam and Bambi, a two year old wingdeer Michael used when he went by himself.
Later Collin saw them off. Sam was indeed impressive with his first full display of antlers. It was his fifth year. Rae, his sister, had just had her first calves. This year, only Collin’s friend Angie was ready to calf again. Although she was Sam’s mother, all Sam saw was a ready female. But Collin preferred to out-cross instead of line-breed as much as possible to keep the small herd as strong as he could.
Collin visited the little pegasus. He was improving every day, and today Marta had him in the small field directly behind the barn with the new mother and foal. The rest of the horses were back in the larger field. Shanika was still with Gwen, going over her lessons. That had been a bonus. Par’s wife was a trained teacher, and she’d eagerly taken on the task as Shanika’s early tutor, as well as tutoring several closer students whose parents wanted their children to hold different hours than the school in the village.
Collin saddled Angie and flew into the village to visit a few people who couldn’t get out on their own. As he left the third home close to noon, he urged Angie into the air. Far to the east, he saw the caravan approaching the Capitol River. Some of the people in the party were probably from Alexandria or Jacada, and most were probably headed to Shade. Few stopped in Hope for more than the night. The group was larger than usual, and Collin hoped they weren’t awakened in the night to stitch some drunk back together after a brawl. “Probably have a few drunks tonight tempting the reptile dragons,” he told Jake.
“I will stay in the village then.”
Collin smiled and headed home. Jake took his job as the village protector quite seriously. If every village had its own protector, dragon deaths would be almost eliminated until the people became careless with their new freedoms.
It was close to three in the afternoon. Collin worked on his accounts in the office although he’d much rather be out in the sunshine. But he’d worked on the garden yesterday, and the bills should be sent out. He didn’t need the money, but he couldn’t set a bad precedent for other doctors who needed to earn a living, although he did amend a few bills for certain people.
He heard someone enter the front door. Par strode through the office to the waiting room. “Good afternoon, Sir. How may I help you today?”
“I’m here to see… Alex Collin.”
“I’m Dr. Morrell. Perhaps I may help you,” Par said. “What’s your name? I’ll get your records.”
Collin rose from his chair. He had encouraged Par to take patients and let them know he was available for them, but he knew that voice. He walked into the waiting room, straight to the slight, older man and hugged him. “Geoff!” He backed away and put his hand on Geoff’s shoulder. “Par, meet my good friend, Dr. Geoff Napier. As you have guessed by now, Par is one of the doctors here. Where’s Lenora? Are you staying?”
Geoff shook Par’s hand, but then met Collin’s gaze. “She died last month in Alexandria. They couldn’t do anything for her.”
Collin felt the blow. Not simply because he’d known her many years ago and now she was dead, but because he’d offered to help last summer, and if Geoff had trusted him, he could have performed an operation at the lab that would have saved Lenora’s life. But Geoff hadn’t trusted him enough. He wanted to ask why, but he couldn’t. Geoff was obviously still hurting from the loss of his wife, and he couldn’t tell him he’d made a serious mistake in bypassing his help. “I’m sorry, Geoff.” He squeezed the shoulder under his hand.
“Yeah.” Geoff met Collin’s gaze. “I told the kids I had an offer to work in a small village, and I just needed to get away. Is the offer still good?”
“You’re always welcome here, Geoff. Is this all your luggage?” He grabbed the large duffle bag on the floor beside Geoff.
“One more on the porch.”
“How old are your kids?” Par asked. “We’ll have room after the new house is finished.” And then Par glanced at Collin, realizing he’d overstepped his place.
“All out and married,” Geoff said gruffly. “I wouldn’t have left them behind if they needed me.”
“Let me take you to your room, Geoff. Like Par says, we’re a little crowded until the new house is finished, but afterward you can switch to a bigger room if you’d like. When we’re all home there’s not much to do, but I plan to take Quinn up to the cabin for a month or so soon, and this will work out well.”
“So there’s the three of you?”
“And one apprentice. Been with me six months. Michael Jamel. He married Kayden.”
“That girl Gaben was so hung up on?”
“Yep, that’s the one. Heard you sold the practice to him on Tara’s only visit.”
“Charged him a bit more than I should have, but he managed to scrape it together with help from all his relatives. He has a large family in Shade.”
“Good. As long as you weren’t cheated.” He opened the door to Geoff’s new room. It was small, with a single bed and a chest of drawers. One chair sat near the window which looked out toward the barn. He closed the door. They were alone. “I’ve missed you, Geoff,” Collin admitted to the man he’d raised as his son when his parents abandoned the very ill ten year old at Dr. Hans Vita’s office in Shade. It was only last year when Collin had needed to go to Shade to confront Gaben, a former doctor of his clinic, over stealing Quinn’s wife and child, that he’d had to tell Geoff he was still alive and far older than he should be.
Geoff lowered his pack to the bed and sat down. He ran his hands over his face and looked out the window. “How far do you own?”
“Two miles west to the Reese River. A mile north and one south.”
“Really? Gaben failed to mention your property was larger than the whole village. No wonder he wanted it.”
Collin took the chair and leaned back on two of its legs. “It wasn’t claimed on the manifests for over seven years, some parts of it were never registered. Pretty easy to get land out in the middle of nowhere. Plenty for the taking up in the mountains.”
“And plenty of dragons.”
“Everything has its price.”
“You get many dragon victims here?”
“Used to. Not anymore.”
Geoff took his gaze from the window. “Why not?”
Collin grinned. “It’s one of the dangerous parts of living with me. Hans Trapper gets his hides somewhere, you know.”
“Hans Trapper? You?” Geoff looked incredulous, and then he grinned. “Really? Man, I think I’ve died. No one thinks you’re real, except that collection of dragon hide items Tole Tanneries puts out. Nice stuff.”
“Yeah. Ulan Tole is the only one I trust with the hides. He manages to keep the softness and the durability all without sacrificing a bit of the color.”
“Were you doing that back forty years ago?”
“Yep, although I worked with Ulan’s father then, and I didn’t quite have the steady flow of hides I have now. I’ve acquired a partner.”
“Quinn? I noticed the dragon head in the waiting room. But Tara said he told her he really didn’t kill it.”
Collin shook his head. “Tara’s a fickle woman. I wouldn’t believe anything she says.”
“I was too weak to teach, wasn’t I?” Geoff said with a bit of self-contempt. He’d always despised his short stature.
“Wasn’t that, Geoff,” Collin said softly. “Never planned to teach Quinn. But he found out my secret, and it’s working out well.”
“That’s why you’re taking him up to the cabin. To get dragons.”
“Something like that,” Collin said, regretting the lie.
“Could you have saved her?” Geoff said, jarring him with the subject change. “What would you have done that they couldn’t do in Alexandria?”
Collin wasn’t sure whether he should lie or tell the truth. He looked back out the window. “Might have been too late for the procedure I wanted to do anyway. I didn’t realize she was so far along in the disease.”
“You’re lying to me, Hans Vita. What the hell is your real name anyway?”
Collin stood. “Just call me Collin. Most of the people here do. Some don’t know my nighttime occupation though, and most don’t realize I’m 185 years old, so I’d appreciate it if you kept those bits of knowledge to yourself.”
“185? Hans… That’s impossible.”
Collin stood before the door. “Look at me Geoff. How much older do I look than the day you first saw me fifty years ago?” He opened the door. “Before you have me stoned, do you want to see the rest of the place?”
“Reba was right. You never age. I always thought she was just bitter.”
“She was. Our past, Geoff, is comprised of apprenticing under the same man, Hans Vita. You stayed there, and I opened a practice here. No more, no less. I don’t want these people hurt by things they do not understand. Niles and Marta’s room,” he said tapping on a bedroom door. “Par and Gwen’s. Another small spare room.”
He took Geoff through the whole house, giving him information on the people he’d be living and working with. In the practice he showed him where the supplies and records were kept, as well as the pharmacy. Most of his work in the clinic was the same as it was in Shade, so it took less time than when he introduced someone who’d never worked with him before.
Par took a patient back through to the front, and then came back as they stood in the surgery discussing procedures. “I didn’t realize we needed another doctor,” Par said. “Quinn’s been out in the barns all day, and Michael’s been gone.”
“You should have gotten him or me if you were busy, Par.”
He scowled. “That’s just it. We aren’t busy.”
“But some days we are. Geoff’s experience will be a valuable addition. And he’s an excellent surgeon.”
“Back in Alexandria the trend is not to cut unless you absolutely have to.”
“And I’m sure we all agree here. But it sounds like the trend is to wait too long now. But,” Collin said, changing the subject. “Par here does know his herbal cures. Absolutely worships the work of C.H. Anon.”
“C.H. Anon’s been around a while….” Geoff began with a chuckle and then pierced Collin with a gaze.
Par smiled at the praise. “That’s the reason I joined Dr. Collin. He grows the whole pharmacy right here. We’re always stocked. His garden is better kept than the one in Alexandria.”
“Even the insulin substitute,” Geoff murmured. “I saw that article last month. Wish I’d had it sooner.”
“Yeah. That’s new. We just got it,” Par said.
“I’m going to show Geoff the barns and garden. By the way, we do a lot more house calls here than in Shade. Would you prefer to stay at the clinic or participate? You do not need to go out. We can let the young men, Quinn and Par, take most of the house calls.”
Geoff nodded. “As you’ve noted, I’m an old man now, and I’d rather stay home, wherever home happens to be. And I’m not much good at surgery any more. Hands are still steady, but the eyes have betrayed me. Been referring them out for the last five years.”
Collin rubbed his shoulder. He hated this part of life. All his friends became older, and he was forced to watch their discomfort until they died.
He took Geoff outside and pointed to the new house, although the hammering of the builders made that obvious. “When they’re done, I’m adding on to the barn. Our herds are growing.” He settled his arms on the fence and watched Quinn and Shanika with Flash. “We raise horses and wingdeer.”
“And pegasus. I’ve never seen one before.” Geoff made his way through the rails and Collin followed.
“Not ours, I’m afraid, and a male, so I’m not sure when we’ll get the chance to expand our breeding efforts. Geoff, you met Quinn. Quinn, Geoff is joining our practice.”
Shanika looked up at him. “Doc Nap’er? Is Mom here?” She ran from the field toward the house. “Mom! Mommy!”
“She’s not here, is she?” Quinn asked quietly.
Shanika ran back to them, tears on the edge of her eyes. “Where is she?”
“I… Do you want to go flying? Geoff, I….” Quinn looked torn, and Shanika’s tears fell freely now at her disappointment.
“Go ahead, Quinn. You’ll have plenty of time for talk later.”
Quinn called Rae from the sky, and soon had distracted the little girl from her mother and the man she’d only seen before when her mother took her away with Uncle Gaben.
Collin decided to continue the tour and took Geoff to the garden. “So, are you C.H.?” Geoff asked as they stood on the far end of the plot, looking back toward the house.
“I told you what I was working on. You didn’t believe me, did you?”
“I didn’t even believe you had really come. Most times I thought I dreamed that whole conversation. You could have made it clearer, you know. Explained the procedure.”
“You didn’t want me to! You still don’t want to know.”
Geoff grabbed his arms. “Okay. I’m listening. What would you have done if I’d have come here first? Outline it step by step.”
The man was frantic with guilt and grief. “Please, Geoff, don’t torture yourself like this. I couldn’t save my own wife from cancer. Sometimes I wish I’d forced the treatment on her, but she’d still be dead today. I’ve never forced anyone to accept my help, Geoff. Not even you. Vita was right, though, I can’t stop aging.”
“You seem to have done all right yourself.”
“My father did that. Can’t do anything after the first twenty-four hours of gestation.”
Geoff became pale. “Gods, you’re a geneticist.” He stumbled to the wooden bench at the far end. “Or just your father?”
“Are you going to tell anyone?”
“Tell? Hans, I….” And his face became pale.
“They’ll kill me, Geoff, and everyone with me. Please don’t let the children be killed for my crimes.”
“What… what did you make? You always loved wingdeer.”
“Angela Batten designed the wingdeer.”
A kittle flew to him, one of Tabitha’s descendants. She landed beside Collin and then walked on his lap, purring. She would have another batch of kittens any day now.
Geoff stared at the cat. He’d seen hundreds of kittles. “The kittle?”
“Was designed by Collin Hansell,” he stated evenly.
“Collin Hansell. Oh, gods, Hans. What the hell did you create a monster for?”
Collin sighed and stood. “If you truly believe that’s what I set out to do, then I suppose you’ll be sending the villagers to burn me. Let me say goodbye to my family. I don’t want them hurt.” He strode toward the barn. Would Geoff hurt him? He was too weary of people who should know better assuming he’d purposely create a killer.
“No, Collin!” Jake said in his ear, his head emerging from the dragon hide curtain of the loft. “I won’t let him hurt you.”
“He won’t,” Collin mumbled to Jake. “Get back inside.”
“Collin?” This time Jake sounded puzzled. “He’s lying on the ground.”
Collin whirled around and ran back to Geoff who was indeed on the ground, clutching his chest. “Geoff.” A heart attack. He’d given the poor man too much of a shock. He ran to the garden and attempted to rip off a leaf, but the whole plant came up. He took it to Geoff. “Here. Just a little of this. Come on. Stay with me, Geoff.” He held him as if he was still that ten year old boy who was too sick to do anything but let him. “Come on. Relax. Is this the first time you’ve had the chest pain?”
“First time this bad,” he said weakly, resting in Collin’s arms and chewing on the leaf Collin had given him. “Should let me go with Lenora.”
Collin tightened his grip. “I can’t force you to let me operate, but please, Geoff. You’re only 61. You’ve got twenty or forty years with me yet, if you’ll let me help. Please, Geoff.”
“How’s the pain?” He was breathing easier now; Collin knew the worst of it was over.
“Little better. Tired.”
Collin stood, bringing Geoff into his arms as he’d carry a child. He was surprised he weighed less than Kayden. Geoff had always been a slight man, but now he felt very frail under his loose clothing. “Let’s get you back to the clinic.”
Geoff closed his eyes and didn’t protest, which meant Collin needed to get those tests run soon before another attack hit. The next one could kill him.
Quinn met him at the barn and walked beside him. Collin took Geoff straight to the inpatient rooms and laid him on the bed. He pulled off his boots and covered him. “Okay, Geoff. Are you going to let me treat you?”
Geoff opened his eyes. “Don’t die on me again.”
“If it’s necessary to disappear again, you’ll go with me,” he promised.
Geoff nodded. “Do your thing.” He took a weak breath. “Guess you’re my brother now,” he said to Quinn. “Haven’t had a brother since I was ten, you know.”
Quinn glanced at Collin and then gripped Geoff’s shoulder. “I could do with an older brother.”
“Even when he’s weak and feeble?”
“I don’t run out on my family.”
Collin examined Geoff, listened to his heart, and took blood tests. “Well, Michael’s going to be mad, but I’m taking Geoff with us when we go north. Michael will have to stay and help Par.” He looked at Quinn more than Geoff to gauge his reaction. The trip north to start Cee’s body was to be their time alone. “He has leukemia again, and he needs a bit of work on his heart.”
Quinn simply nodded, but gave no indication of his disappointment. He’d need to talk to him later, just as he had to find time to plan out the changes they needed to make for Cee’s body.
“North? The cabin?” Geoff asked.
“No. You don’t remember, do you, Geoff, but it’s where I gave you the bone marrow transplant.”
“You rest, Geoff. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of you.”
© 2007 by Deborah K. Lauro. No part of this book may be published in any form without permission from the author.