Summary: Claire begins to question her worth as a human being when the Agency is pawned off on the FBI for a most unusual case.
Timeline: Mid-season 2.
Disclaimer: Pet Shop of Horrors and The Invisible Man characters belong to their respective entities. Made-ups are mine and mine alone.
Claire Keeply had been thinking about men more and more, especially since that New Year’s Day. Another sad night spent alone, she had watched as couples left bars arm in arm with silly little smiles on their happy faces. She had drowned her sorrows, burying her work in the lab. She had no one to kiss at midnight. Claire wondered if her biological clock was ticking. It alarmed and depressed her all at the same time. Briefly abandoning her latest research project out of pure boredom, she listened in on the briefing the Official was giving her colleagues that day. Charlie had anxiously been watching the door, obviously waiting for another arrival.
“Ladies and gentlemen, your next assignment. Eberts!” Eberts stepped forward with a thick manila folder.
“It seems we’re being contracted for an assignment by the FBI,” Borden told his agents.
Hobbes’ eyebrow quirked a bit. “Jonesy payin’ us a call, Chief?” Eberts shook his head.
“No, Robert. An Agent Howard from the local office.” Charlie continued, oblivious to their conversation.
“Agent Howard want us to investigate an exotic animal pet shop in Los Angeles’ Chinatown,” Charlie reported simply.
“Are you for real, sir? I mean, why would the FBI need invisibility to raid a pet shop?” Darien asked incredulously.
“Pet shop? You’ve got to be kidding me,” Monroe sneered.
“Oh, but this is of the utmost importance, Miss Monroe. Agent Howard offered to pay us handsomely for our services and any additional expenses incurred during this mission from his own pocket.”
Hobbes nodded knowingly. “So what you’re saying is this Howard character’s payin’ you under the table?”
Darien peeked under a nearby table. “You know, I see a few Benjamins stashed under there.”
Hobbes peeked under the table as well. “I bet my raise is hiding in there.”
Darien rolled his eyes. “You don’t deserve a raise.”
Hobbes shook his head, “Au contraire, my friend. Bobby Hobbes smells hazard pay if we get involved with the feds.”
Charlie’s lips parted. “Enough. If opportunity knocks, you take it.”
Hobbes glanced at Fawkes. “See? What did I tell you? Hazard pay!”
Alex spoke up. “So what exactly are we to do at this pet shop?” she asked over the din.
“Agent Howard has been working on what he has dubbed ‘the train whistle case’ for some time now. All he needs is some outside assistance and a fresh perspective,” Charlie replied. “Eberts! Am I forgetting anything?”
To which Eberts replied, “The detective and the sweets, sir.”
The Official cocked his head. “Right. There’s an LAPD detective, Leon Orchot, who seems to have assigned himself to the case. The owner of the exotic pet shop has a sweet tooth. Use that against him, if necessary. Get to it.”
The others got up to leave except for Claire. “Wait sir,” Claire asked politely.
“Yes, Claire?” he asked. “Can I tag along? I’m itching for to go out into the field,” she replied.
“Don’t you have something better to do with your time, Claire?” he replied.
She felt slightly offended. “I’m done with my current project. I’m just asking this one time, sir,” she pleaded lightly.
Darien, Bobby, and Alex watched with some marked interest as Charlie agreed. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to have the Keeper on hand for such an assignment,” he said aloud.
“Thank you sir,” Claire said graciously.
With Claire, Darien, and Bobby in Golda, and Alex in her ’Vette, they took off for L.A. and its mysterious Chinatown.
The squawks of live chickens in cages, a sharp, pungent smell spilling from a nearby dim sum restaurant, and small Chinese people with their heads down, walking briskly to their destinations greeted them as the Underfunded Four arrived outside of the unmarked pet shop.
Hobbes drooled. “I could use some dim sum right about now,” he said, staring at the closest restaurant across the street.
“Keep your eyes on the prize Bobby,” Claire reminded him, walking inside.
Pouting, Hobbes followed Darien and Monroe into the shop. A thick layer of incense smoke wrapped itself around the agents. Animals in cages nearby loudly announced their arrival. From behind a mahogany Chinese silk screen, an effeminate looking man appeared. A strange mouse with bat-like wings was sitting on his shoulders.
“Hello and welcome to my pet shop. I am D. How may I help you?” he said in his light, feminine voice.
Hobbes flashed his Health and Human Services badge. “Federal agents. We’re here investigating the death of one of your recent customers, Leroy Woods. You know anything about it?”
D knitted his eyebrows. “I’m afraid I don’t. Excuse me sir,” he said placing a hand on Darien’s arm.
Fawkes was just about to stick his fingers in a cage harboring an odd looking animal before D stopped him. Darien shrank away in horror at the touch of the man’s hand. It was unearthly cold, even at that time of year.
“We were told that you sold Mr. Woods an animal from your pet shop and that you were the last person who saw him alive,” Monroe told him.
Meanwhile, Claire walked around her eyes taking in some of the exotic animals this D character kept at the shop. ‘Snakes, lizards, monkeys, oh my,’ she thought. Though she had her animals at the lab and Pavlov at home, another pet would be nice. ‘Perhaps a bird of some sort,’ she thought to herself. What Claire didn’t realize was that D had been watching her with some interest.
“Yes, I sold Mr. Woods a rare breed of dog from China. He had been lost for some time, so the dog chose Mr. Woods for companionship. Otherwise, I don’t know what happened to Mr. Woods. If you’ll excuse me,” he said aloud.
The animals began a symphonic cacophony as if on cue. “My pets need to be fed now. I trust you know your way out, yes?” And with a swish of his long white suit, D was gone from sight.
Claire lingered as long as she could, but before she left, D stood in the shadows and mesmerized her. With a slight nod of his head, he was gone again. The Keeper opened the doors to the smoggy California sunshine.
“What’s next guys?” she said cheerily.
“Food!” Hobbes growled, like the Cookie Monster.
“It seems to me that D guy knows more than he’s letting on,” Alex observed.
“You want me to go in?” Darien asked.
“It’s your call,” Alex said, which in Monroe-speak meant do it or I kill you.
“We’ll be at the place up the street if you need us Fawkes, the Yei Mao Restaurant,” Hobbes said, making a move in that direction. Alex grabbed his shoulder and pushed him back.
“No, we’ll be at Yei Mao. You stay here as backup for Fawkes,” Monroe replied.
Hobbes protested. “Why me? Why not you? Damnit… Monroe!” But Alex couldn’t hear him, she and Claire were already in her convertible, blasting down the busy street.
“Go it, Fawkesy,” Hobbes said listlessly. He went to the driver’s side of the war-torn van, mumbling something about choking Monroe with a noodle or two.
In the shadows of the entrance to the shop, Darien willed the cold coat of quicksilver to envelop his body. Briefly he felt the chill, but immediately adjusted to it. Slipping inside as quietly as he could, the noise of the animals increased notably. D was feeding the animals and the strange mouse bat was sitting on a bird perch nearby.
“What is it, my pretty?” he asked the spider monkey he was feeding at the moment. It jumped around anxiously in response to D’s question. In turn, D cocked his head listening, as if he knew what the monkey had said. Fawkes didn’t so much as contract a muscle. Shrugging, D continued to feed his animals.
“Q-chan, come!” D beckoned the mouse bat hybrid. It flew and settled itself on D’s left shoulder. The quicksilvered Darien followed them into the back room of the store.
“Those scary federal agents didn’t scare you too much, did they Q-chan? No matter, Mr. Woods broke his contract… he deserved what he got,” D told his lap pet coldly.
Armed with that information, Darien left the shop.
“What’s the 411, Fawkes?” Bobby asked him as Darien shed the quicksilver and got into the van.
“Do we still have the file on Woods?” Darien asked, ignoring his question.
“Yeah sure. Hold on. Why? You find something?” Hobbes replied, retrieving the file from a pocket nearby.
Darien paged through it until he found a copy of the contract. “You must keep the incense burning at all times; you must keep the animal leashed at all times; you must never show the animal to anyone,” Darien read aloud.
“What’s up?” Hobbes asked again.
“The freaky pet shop guy! I overheard him say that Woods broke his contract,” Darien said plainly.
“I wonder what he meant by that, did Woods actually sign that contract? Those terms were pretty lightweight,” Hobbes mused.
“Let’s talk this over with Monroe. You know how she gets if we keep stuff from her,” Darien told him.
“Yeah sure. Now, we gets some grub ’cause I’m famished, my friend, and you don’t want to deal with a starving Bobby Hobbes!”
The next day, Alex, Claire, Darien, and Bobby decided on two things. Darien and Hobbes would meet with Agent Howard, while Monroe and Claire would interview Woods’ estranged wife and the people at his place of employment.
Darien and Hobbes flashed their badge at the man at the front desk of FBI’s L.A. offices.
“Health and Human Services?” he said, trying not to laugh.
“Save it pal; we’ve heard it all. We’re here to see Agent Howard about the pet shop case,” Darien told him.
“Hold on,” he said pressing a button to contact Howard.
He personally came out of his office to greet the two. “Come in,” he gestured. “How goes the investigation, boys?” Howard began. An aging, but effusive man, Howard leaned back in his leather chair easily.
“Currently our associates are interviewing Woods’ estranged wife and his people at the railroads,” Hobbes reported.
“Good. Is there anything else you would require for this inquiry?” Howard asked.
Darien opened his mouth in reply, but the phone rang interrupting him. “Hold on, Agent Fawkes… what? … sure, send him in,” Howard said. “You’re in luck. That punk detective from the LAPD wants to see me,” Howard said.
Throwing open the door, blue eyes flashing, a tall, All-American looking boy raced into the room. “Howard! What do you know about the Woods case? You’re holding out on me again!” Leon Orchot raged, his hands on the desk.
“This case is out of your jurisdiction, kid. Orchot, I’d like you to meet the agents investigating the train whistle case from the Department of Health and Human Services, Agents Hobbes and Fawkes,” Howard gestured to his guests. It was only then that Leon realized that there were other people in the room.
“Wait a sec. What jurisdiction does Health and Human Services have that I don’t?” Leon asked, trying to hold in his anger.
“Woods hauled farming goods which gives Health and Human plenty of jurisdiction. You were saying, Agent Fawkes?” Howard said, balancing his stare on Darien, easily ignoring Leon.
“See uh, in this contract, it has only three terms. I did a little reconnaissance and it turns out Woods broke one of the terms or something. My colleague Agent Monroe compared this whistle case to the others in the file and we both noticed a pattern. Is this like any of the other cases?” Fawkes asked sensibly.
“It certainly fits the profile. Thing is we have no evidence to bring down D and his pet shop, but that’s why I’m here. You know what?” Leon said, suddenly inspired, “I think I’ll tag along for the rest of your investigation.”
Hobbes and Fawkes shared a glance and a shrug of their shoulders. “The more the merrier,” Bobby said simply.
In the meantime, Monroe and Claire had arrived at the Lazy Wheels trailer park in Riverside to interview Darla Long, Leroy Woods’ estranged wife of several years.
“Excuse me ma’am? Federal agents. We’re investigating the death of your husband, Leroy Woods?” Alex said to the stocky woman sitting outside.
“Yeah?” she said, taking a long drag on her cheap cigarette.
Claire shared a look with Alex and stepped up. “Anything you can tell us would be much appreciated, Mrs. Woods,” she presented.
Darla coughed and look bored. “Miss Long. Look, I already told the cops everything I could. I was still legally married to Leroy, but he hadn’t been home in over four years. But he called me the week before he died, said he wanted to get back together. Don’t know why he married me, the fat ass was married to the trains,” she said, dragging on her cigarette again.
Alex poked around outside, finding nothing of interest. When she made a move to the aluminum door, Darla shook her head. “Hey Barbie, go inside my house and I call the real cops,” she threatened.
Monroe made a move as though she were going to go inside anyways, but thought better of it.
“Are you sure there’s nothing else you could tell us, just you and me, woman to woman?” Claire persisted.
The Keep knew Darla was hiding something. There was something in her eyes; she was hiding a big secret.
Darla opened her mouth, but thought better of it. “No,” she said abruptly. Darla rushed inside the house on wheels before she could give herself away.
“There’s something else going on here that we don’t know about,” Alex noted, after banging on the door.
“You’re probably right. Let’s go pay a visit to the blokes at Sun Coast then,” Claire said, sighing. The two women left Lazy Wheels in a cloud of dust.
On the way, Darien called Monroe’s cell phone, which Claire answered.
“Hello? … hello Darien! What’s up? … Miss Long seems to be hiding something; we couldn’t get a bloody thing out of her … you don’t say? … oh, yes we are, we’re on our way there right now … okay … okay, I’ll let her know … see you then … bye bye,” she said hanging up the phone.
“What did they say?” Alex asked, trying in vain to tuck her hair behind her ears.
“They’ll meet us at the railroads for the interviews,” Claire reported. “Seems the LAPD detective that the Official was telling us about assigned himself to our case as well.”
Monroe shrugged her shoulders. “The more the merrier.”
The women arrived at about the same time as the men at the Sun Coast Railroads main office.
“I suppose you’re the Keeper,” Leon said to Alex.
Monroe glared at him evenly. “Do I look like the kind of woman you should put in a lab coat?” she asked.
Claire rushed around to the other side of the Corvette. “No, actually, I’m the Keeper. How do you do?” she asked, shaking his hand.
“I do fine. I’m Detective Orchot, Miss Keeply,” he replied. Leon eyed Alex warily.
“This here’s our very own Special Agent Alex Monroe,” Hobbes offered as Alex’s introduction.
Monroe huffed and propelled herself to the office.
“I guess that means we follow her,” Darien said ponderingly. The rest of the group followed her in.
“We’re here to get some information on Leroy Woods. I’ve been told that he worked here,” Alex was saying to the man at the front desk. Placard said Joe Simpson.
“Sure did. Are you guys cops? ‘Cause I already talked to them,” he told them, eyeing them evenly.
Monroe, Hobbes and Darien flashed their tins.
Joe struggled to read them. “Health and Human Services?” he asked dubiously.
“Yeah, so what?” Hobbes replied offhandedly.
“But I, uh didn’t think you guys had any business here,” Joe replied.
“We just want to poke around here, Mr. Simpson. I speak for all of my friends when I say ‘we come in peace’,” Darien told the man.
Joe chuckled. “I suppose. Some of Leroy’s friends are in the yard now, you can see them if you like,” he said.
As promised, a few rough and tumble looking railroad workers were overseeing a train being loaded.
At the sight of the large group, one called out, “Are you here for Leroy or Ridley?”
Monroe replied, “Leroy. How did you know?”
Another replied, “Saw the decal on that death trap he was driving. Health and Human Services, yeah? I may not be a very smart man, but that’s with the government.”
Darien took that opportunity to lean on the railcar they were loading with his hand. “Who’s Ridley?”
The first man who spoke, Elwood, replied, “Leroy’s best friend. Joined at the hip for years, until yard scuttlebutt says Ridley was scorin’ with Darla,” Elwood shrugged.
“That’s not what I heard. I heard Lee caught Ridley and Darla in bed together. Lee flies off the handle, kills Ridley. That was about the time that both Lee and Ridley disappeared. Then Lee shows up to turn over a new leaf with Darla, but he comes home with some strange animal. Looks like a dog to us, but if you look at it a certain way, it’s not. Lee even starts callin’ the dog Ridley, for Christ’s sake! We all know he’s lost it.
“Anyways, Lee leaves the dog at home with Darla to go drinkin’ with us. He goes home, sees the dog takin’ it easy with Darla, totally loses it. He runs out in his truck, draggin’ the dog with him and gets in the car accident that the cops found him in,” Burns, the second man, said in a long-winded reply.
“Thank you boys,” Monroe said to them.
“No problem,” Elwood replied, returning to his work.
A few feet away from where the men continued to work, Claire, Alex, Bobby, Darien and Leon gathered for a pow-wow.
“We’re chasin’ a red herring, my friend. This is the the stupidest assignment the Fat Man’s ever sent us on!” Hobbes exploded.
“Calm down, Hobbesy. There must be a reason, something that we’re not seeing,” Darien replied, trying to fit the pieces together.
“As much as I hate to admit, the dwarf’s got the right idea. This is an open and shut case of a jealous husband,” Monroe said.
Darien walked a little ways away from his friends and Leon.
“Nothing in the pet shop cases are mere coincidences, Agent Monroe. I’m siding with Agent Fawkes, there’s a smoking gun somewhere. I’m not leaving this case alone until I find out,” Leon told her.
“A penny for your thoughts, Darien,” Claire called to him.
“What did you get on Leroy’s wife?” Darien replied, deep in thought.
“Nothing. She refused to talk,” Monroe replied.
“We’re goin’ back,” he said, snapping his fingers, suddenly inspired.
“Are you going to get us in on the secret, Fawkes?” Bobby asked. Darien shook his head and led the way back to the vehicles.
At Darla’s trailer, when the five of them approached her, she was watering the small garden in front of her home. Darla jumped in surprise and dropped the metal can, running inside.
“Darla! Darla wait!” Claire called after her.
“No, no! GO AWAY! Leave me alone!” Darla screamed.
“I will take you downtown for obstruction of justice, Miss Long!” Leon threatened through the closed door.
“Do it! I don’t care, I’ll never tell!” she cried.
The Keep patted his arm. “Let a woman handle this, okay?” She turned back to the door.
“Darla, please. Agent Monroe and I would like to speak to you, please?” They waited for a response.
“Never!” her voice screamed answered back from the other side of the flimsy door.
“Darien, open the door,” Monroe ordered.
“Never thought you’d ask,” he replied. Pulling out his old thieving tools he picked the lock and pushed the door open.
“Stay here,” Monroe told the men, “Claire, let’s go.” Alex drew her gun and made her way through the chaotic and messy double wide. A thick layer of incense, much like the one at the pet shop, crammed the air. Darla was cowering on the bed, visibly shaken up.
“Please Darla,” Claire begged, “tell us what happened.”
Fresh tears sprang from the woman’s eyes. “I never meant to fall in love with Ridley. He was Lee’s best friend… but I was so lonely… and he was too… missed Lee too much… and when Ridley kissed me, it felt so right,” she sobbed.
Monroe glanced uncomfortably at Claire. A confession is just what the case needed, but still it was strange seeing it come out like this.
Claire urged, “What happened to Ridley?”
Darla sniffled her tears away. “Lee killed him. He caught Ridley and I together. Lee dragged him away and his body’s in the river not far from here.”
Monroe then asked, “what went on afterwards?”
Darla struggled to catch her composure. “Lee didn’t come home right away. He was gone for a couple of weeks. I knew Lee had killed Ridley, I just knew it. Then Lee comes home and shows up with a dog. A dog, as if that’s going to make things better!” Darla wheezed, rubbing a tissue across her nose.
“Then on top of it, I have to take care of the stupid thing. Lee says I can’t let him off the leash or stop the incense from burning. I take a nap… and I swear to God, when I woke up, Ridley was sleeping beside me. I didn’t know where the dog went, but Lee came home a few hours later, drunk as I’d ever seen him. Lee doesn’t get mad very often, but when he does, it’s pretty bad. He was a mean drunk. He yanks the dog away and then I hear he got into the accident. That’s it, that’s all I know. Will I be in trouble?” Darla asked, trying to stop crying.
“No, of course not,” Claire assured her, “we can pull some strings.”
Back outside, Alex filled the guys in on what Darla had just admitted to them in the trailer.
“This certainly fits the precedent of the other cases,” Leon told them, the voice of experience.
Darien was still steeped in his thoughts quietly. “He must’ve broken one of the terms in the contract, right?”
Orchot nodded. “Most likely the one where he wasn’t supposed to let anyone see the dog, but from what I can tell, he broke nearly all of them.”
Suddenly Claire thought she heard a car backfiring, but Hobbes, Alex and Leon knew better.
“Get down!” Bobby yelled to everyone in the general vincinity.
Motioning to the trailer, Monroe and Orchot followed him inside. Darla lay lifeless in the kitchen, a self-inflicted handgun wound to the head. Tucking their side arms back into their holsters, all the three could do was sigh painfully at the sight.
The next day, the LAPD and the FBI officially closed the case. “Thank you, Agent Fawkes, Agent Hobbes, Agent Monroe, Miss Keeply. We couldn’t have solved the case without you,” Howard told them. They were sitting in his office at the LA chapter of the FBI. He pushed a folded check toward them.
“I’m sure this amount will be up to your Official’s liking,” he added.
Hobbes unfolded it and showed it to Darien, whose mouth dropped open in astonishment.
“Whoo… it sure will please the Chief,” Hobbes assured the fed.
“Excuse me sir, where’s Detective Orchot? I’d like to say goodbye to him,” Claire said.
“We should be getting back to the Agency, Claire,” Alex replied.
“No. You know what? I’ll take a cab back. There’s something I have to do,” she replied, rushing from the office.
“Are you sure?” Hobbes called after her, “Golda and I are here at your service!” Claire shook her head and mumbled her response.
Clutching a box of French éclairs, Claire caught a cab to D’s pet shop. “Wait here, will you?” asked the driver.
Muffled arguing entered her ears as she approached the exotic animal store.
“Excuse me?” she called, going inside.
Moving further inside, Leon and D were having tea, and she looked as though she were disturbing them. Leon looked a bit red in the face, but D was as pale as ever.
“I knew you’d come back, Miss Keeply. Ooh, are those éclairs??” D exclaimed, clapping his hands happily.
Claire walked past Leon to place the box on the table and said quietly in reply, “Yes.”
D stood there, almost in an orgasmic state, “Ooh, this from the Hotel Covell, you have to wait in line for these little French pastries drenched in miles of mouth-watering chocolate! How did you know I would like it? These are for me, yes?”
Claire glanced at the steaming Leon beside her and replied, “Yes, they’re for you. A little birdie told me that you would enjoy them.”
D gestured to an empty seat near the table. “Please. Have a seat; join us for tea!” he offered Claire. “We can have one of these wonderful éclairs over ginseng tea!”
Leon rolled his eyes angrily, setting his lips and yanking his jacket from a chair nearby.
“Leon, will you be staying too?”
Leon rushed to the door in anger.
“I know and you know that this pet shop had something to do with Leroy Woods and Ridley Garner’s deaths. I can’t prove it, but someday, I’m going to catch you. You’ll make a mistake and I’ll be there to throw you in prison for good, so help me God.” On that note, Orchot left in a hurry.
“What was that all about?” Claire asked.
D poured the fresh batch of tea into a new cup for her. “Poor Leon. He seems to think Mr. Woods’ unfortunate accident must be my fault. I suppose because the more mysterious murders in our fair city involved animals the owners bought from my pet shop. But I hear the case that brought you here was closed.” D paused, staring at her profoundly. “You’re not here about it, though,” he asked, reading her mind.
Claire nodded, somewhat surprised that he could tell her true intentions already. “Yes, in fact, I’m interested in a pet from your shop.” Q-chan flew in and settled himself on D’s shoulder.
The tall, girlish looking man set his cup down on its saucer. “I’m so glad that you came. Your animal is ready for you to take home. Follow me,” he said, standing up.
“Wait!” Claire protested. “How do you know what kind of animal I want?” Nonetheless, she followed him to the back of the store.
“I didn’t. But the animal chose you,” he replied mysteriously. He gave no further response as she entered the bowels of the pet shop. Opening a door, a beautiful orange and yellow bird was sitting on a perch, perfectly erect, as though it were waiting for her appearance.
Claire examined the bird carefully. “He’s beautiful,” she breathed, already enraptured.
“Yes she is. Her name is Riddle. Just between me and you, don’t call her anything but Riddle,” he told the Keeper.
“Yes of course,” Claire said eagerly. She had fallen in love at first sight with the bird. She didn’t care that there was no scientifically plausible reason for such a bird to exist in contemporary times, but she was too far gone to care.
D smiled at her. “There is one thing left for us to discuss. The contract,” he said, unrolling a simple contract, much like the one Leroy Woods had signed. Claire tore her eyes away from Riddle long enough to read it. “You must never let the incense burn out; you will not allow the bird to be in the presence of fire; you will not show the animal to anyone,” she read aloud for her benefit. “If you should run out of incense, I will gladly give you more,” D instructed her strangely.
Without another thought, Claire scribbled her name on the line below.
In the cab, the driver asked, “Isn’t that bird supposed to be in a cage or something?”
Claire looked at Riddle perched on her right hand, protected by a special glove. “Not for this kind of bird, no,” she told the driver, as they bounced along the freeway.
“If it craps on my seat, I’m charging you extra!” he warned her.
Riddle squawked furiously, as though she understood what he had said.
“Calm down, Riddle. Don’t let that rude man get to you. In a few hours, we’ll be home and I’ll introduce you to my Pavlov. Then I can take you to work, though I’ll have to keep you away from my lab rats and such,” Claire said softly to the bird, stroking its soft feathers with her left hand.
Famous last words. All Claire could remember was being wrenched from one side of the backseat to the next, and the distinct sound of metal crunching on all sides, coupled with the splatter of glass falling on the freeway. The car accident happened in the blink of an eye. Trying to avoid a car swerving in front of them, the driver had to jerk the vehicle to the other side, which in turn hit another car. That started a huge chain reaction. It was all over before it even began.
In time, Claire woke up feeling a little dizzy. The car was wedged into a light pole and a divider on the right shoulder of the California freeway. She was a little bruised and bloodied and her right shin was throbbing, but otherwise she was alive. A few minutes after she came to, the driver woke up, groaning.
“Do you smell that?” he asked groggily.
Claire sniffed the air. “Gasoline. The gas tank must’ve been punctured.”
The driver moaned in pain, with only one thing on his mind. “Shit, I hurt pretty bad. How are you back there? We have to get out.”
Claire mumbled her agreement. “Wait, where is my bird?” she asked weakly. “I see her… but I can’t get her.” She reached blindly for Riddle, but the cab seatbelt held her in place. Unbuckling the belt hastily, she tried to make contact with the bird again, but to no avail. One of Riddle’s wings was broken, so she flapped her free wing pathetically.
With some outside help, the driver managed to get out of the vehicle with a few scratches. They had to use the jaws of life to extract Claire from the backseat though.
“Wait, please, my bird is still in there!” she pleaded as strongly as she could.
The rescuers saw the bird, but the car was borderline totaled. Just as they were walking away, an electrical fire sparked from the light pole.
“Fire!” one rescuer yelled. As they ran safely away, the car exploded in a burst of flames. Claire started in horror as it burst into flames. Then she fainted.
“Hey, I think she’s waking up. Heyyy Keep, it’s me Hobbes. Fawkesy’s here too,” Bobby’s warm voice entered her ears.
Claire blinked. “My head!” she moaned. “Where am I?” she asked, as the harsh indirect sunlight pierced her eyes.
“Take it easy, Claire. You’re in Cabrillo Hospital. You got out of intensive care two nights ago. You’ve been here for a couple of days,” Darien reassured her.
“Ohhh bum! I feel like I’ve been run over by a truck!” she moaned, touching her head. A bandage was there.
“You could say that. You were in a pretty bad accident there, Keep, but everything’s okay now,” Darien replied.
“Yeah, you got paid medical leave,” Hobbes huffed in mock annoyance.
Claire smiled, and grimaced trying to sit up. She had been trying to wake herself from the fog that was in her mind.
“You know what I think you need, Keep? A Butterfinger! Fawkes, you comin’?” Bobby asked.
Darien studied the Keeper’s face, looking for something.
“Go, Darien. I’ll be fine. I just need to catch my bearings,” Claire reassured him.
The two left her in the room, alone in her thoughts, her frustrated fears, and everything else which she tried to sort out in the moments alone.
Though she tried, she couldn’t clear her mind right away, Claire instead looked around the room. The window was open and Claire could hear birds, conceivably pigeons. Suddenly a familiar orange and yellow bird appeared on the window sill.
“Riddle,” she coughed. The bird flew in and rested herself on the metal bars keeping Claire in the bed. “I thought you died!” she said, stroking the bird.
“Oh my God, it can’t be,” she said in astonishment.
Riddle looked at her, while Claire struggled to remember the myth that surrounded the phoenix.
“Consumed itself in fire after 500 years, only to resurrect itself from the ashes,” she said to the bird, who perched itself on her right finger. With that said, Riddle flew to the window.
“What are you trying to tell me?” she asked the bird. Obviously Riddle had some sort of ulterior motive for entering her life.
As soon as she had figured it out, she whispered, “Goodbye. Thank you so much.” With one final look, Riddle flew out the window and was never seen again.
Claire had discerned one thing. Riddle the phoenix had been in her life for one reason: to remind her that she should rise from the ashes of her current life and start anew. She heard Darien and Hobbes’ voices from down the hall, and smiled to herself.
“I like us!” she said aloud, as they came upon the room, catching her smiling in bed.