The B Team



All characters that appear in this chapter of B-Team are my own. This story is a continuation of the original four part "B-Team". My special thanks to Tigermark for his continued assistance, participation, and encouragement in the crafting of this story.

The B Team is copyright © The Silver Coyote
2003, 2004




Family Time

The van was comfortable and conducive to the three different conversations that were going on in it. It was one of those extended chassis van-pool style vans with three rows of bench seating behind the driverís seat, and effective dual air conditioning systems. Well insulated, conversation could take place without the need to raise oneís voice.

Of course, that didnít preclude voices from being raised...

"We have two C-130s now?"

Matt turned to look at the two furs sitting immediately behind him. Steve was at the wheel of the van, guiding them towards his home in the suburbs of Kansas City. Matt was in the shotgun seat, bringing the other pilots on board up to speed regarding Intermountainís fleet of aircraft. Tim Riggins and Joe Latrans, seated on the first bench behind Steve and Matt, stared slack jawed at the grinning Labrador.

"Please tell me," Timmyís deep baritone voice growled, "that you didnít trade the Lear for that thing we saw on the ramp at KCI."

Behind the pilots, in the second row, Joshua and Marie Latrans were busily and noisily trying to outdo one another in yet another video game on the portable player they had brought along. Sporadic giggles and sibling challenges issued forth from the bench seat, and now and again physical activity in the form of confined space wrestling accompanied the passage of the player between them. Feral grins covered both their muzzles as each tried to exterminate the otherís avatar in the game.

The third row was shared by three females, each the love of one of the pilots up front. Angie Rockwell sat between Annie Latrans and Janie Riggins. The three spoke in conspiratorial whispers punctuated by the occasional slight giggle as they stole glances towards the front of the van. Occasionally Annie would lay a paw on the head of one or the other of her two pups, trying to keep them reasonably quiet. It was difficult for her to expect them to keep their enthusiasm for the game in check when she and her friends were having so much fun carrying on themselves.

The whole assembly raced south along Interstate 29, the van following Dakota and Rick in the IROC Camaro, which in turn was following Molly with Randy and Melanie in Mollyís Chevy Malibu. Rick and Dakota had finally shown up at Kansas City International, full of stories about the big wreck and associated traffic jam on I-35 leading into the interchange with I-29 downtown. The visitors had all piled in to their respective vehicles and had set off for Steve and Mollyís comfortably cozy condominium in Thomas Heights.

"No," Matt replied, ignoring the incredulous looks on the muzzles of his pilots. "I didnít trade the Lear for that wretched-looking C-130." Matt paused to chuckle. "I traded the Lear for that C-130 and a wing spar and two rebuilt Allisons for The Bitch, and future favors as yet uncalled."

"That hulk is airworthy?" Joe asked with a barely suppressed note of amazement in his voice.

"Well," Steve piped up as he changed lanes for an approaching exit ramp, "it was when we left Arizona with it." He laughed briefly. "Iím not so sure now."

"Weíll do a thorough pre-flight on it tomorrow before we take it home to Jerry." Matt said.

"Then what?" Tim asked. "Whatís the plan?"

Matt sighed slightly, one ear twitched. "Ultimately, I want one in Denver and the other in Columbus. Iíll leave it up to you guys how the crewing works out, but I want two full crews at each end of the empire." Matt grinned at his own joke. "Two pilots, a loadmaster, and a navigator engineer. Basic math ought to tell you that we need to hire some furs soon."

Tim and Joe looked at each other, and then back to Matt.

"Meanwhile," the Labrador continued, "we need to keep The Bitch busy earning a living for us. Steve is agreeable to commuting to Centennial for a while until we get the next Herk ready for work. Tim, if you want to throw in with them to get some face time with The Bitch, all the better, otherwise I suggest you and Joe start shopping for some more pilots. Weíre going to need them, hopefully more sooner than later"

"When will she be ready?" Joe asked, referring to their number one ride.

Matt smiled. "Jerry promised me she'd be ready by the time we get back to Port Columbus. Hell, she may be sitting in the hangar right now, rarin' to go, for all I know."

"Big contracts coming?" Joe asked.

"Already two in hand," Matt replied. "And a third one working. The ones in hand are for The Bitch, the one we're working on will require the Caravan. Mining equipment in the desert of northeastern Arizona, Joe. Right up your alley."

As Matt laid out the details for his pilots, the girls in the back shifted from discussion centering on their males to discussion similar to what Matt and the boys were involved with. Angie described for the fox and cougar the personnel needs that would be developing, not only in flight crews but also in terms of ground support and office staff.

"I canít run both offices," she said simply. "Itís too much for one fur. Weíre going to need an office manager and perhaps an assistant at each end, and lots of networking to keep everything flowing smoothly."

Annie and Janie nodded, encouraging the Calico to continue.

"Matt says weíre going to need a mechanic at Centennial, and perhaps some ground crew to recover and prepare the aircraft between missions. Iíve got to arrange bulk fuel accounts at Centennial, set up an office, hire some furs, and get the operation up and running ASAP. Matt says the C-130 your husbands fly will be ready for the line within a few days at most."

"And the Caravan is already there, and the King Air soon will be," Annie added.

Janie nodded. "That doesnít leave us much time, does it?"

The Calico and the fox looked at cougar, and suddenly each female was lost in her own thoughts.

# # #

Steve Lupus leaned back from the coffee table, sinking into the sofa he was seated on as he reclined into the cushions behind him. The remains of his dinner, along with those of half a dozen others around him, lay on the coffee table before him. The dark wolfís golden eyes took in his surroundings as his gaze slowly traversed the room while his left paw patted his flat stomach appreciatively.

It was a full house. The Ohio contingent included Matt and Angie, Rick and Dakota, and Randy and Melanie. From the western side of their world came Timmy and Janie, and Joe and Annie and their pups. Steve and Molly brought the nose count to fourteen, quite a crowd for the condo, but smiles abounded in the close quarters. In spite of the crowd, the gathering and meal had been a great success. From the time they walked through the door it had been a party, starting with the wine, beer, and "horse doovers" (as Matt called them) and moving into the fabulous dinner which Steve and Molly then prepared for them.

Steveís gaze wandered to the small dining area table. Matt Barstock was holding forth on some aerial maneuver or other, a half-empty mug of beer on the table before him. The Labrador held his paws aloft in front of him, twisting slowly in the air. Randy, Melanie, and Joshua Latrans looked on in awe as Matt spoke. Steve could barely hear what Matt was saying, but judging from the look on his boss' muzzle it was ninety percent bovine obfuscation with just enough fact mixed in to make it seem rooted in reality.

"There I was," Matt exulted while holding his left paw sideways in front of him, his right above and behind it. "Down two engines with a Mig on my tail..."

Steve shook his head in amusement. Heíd probably heard that story ten times already.

Closer to paw Steve could hear Annie, Molly, Angie, and Janie in deep conversation about employment. The topic of discussion, he gathered by eavesdropping, was Janieís current employment status. As he tuned in he could hear Annie say "Thereís no reason you shouldnít consider that, Janie. Lord knows you have the experience, and the motivation is certainly there."

The lady furs were reclined in the middle of the great room floor on various chair cushions and pillows. Had they been dressed differently, thought Steve, they would look just like Roman courtesans, waiting for the return of their warriors. Of course, this immediately cast the males in the room in the role of "the warriors", a notion which elicited an immediate chuckle from the wolf. But then he reflected on some of the things he and his crewmates had been through, especially at the paws of the Bitch, and the association didnít seem so far fetched.

"You should speak with Matt about your idea," Steve heard Angie Rockwell say. "I think itís a great idea," the Calico continued. "It has much merit and no drawbacks that I can see."

"Iíd jump at that opportunity," Molly Lomax said with enthusiasm.

The fox, the Calico, and the cougar all looked at her with surprise in their eyes. Each of them knew what Molly did for a living. Molly was employed by a large retail chain as a buyer, and made a very decent living.

The skunk grinned at them, giving up a small shrug. "What can I tell you?" she laughed. "It would allow me to keep closer tabs on..." she motioned over her shoulder towards Steve with a paw, "that wild thing over there."

Annie giggled while nodding. "Tell me about it. You let these males get out of pocket and thereís no telling what kind of trouble theyíll get in to." In turn she pointed towards Joe. "That one, every other time I turn him loose he breaks something. Iím surprised Matt gives him the keys to any of these flying machines any more."

The colleccted females laughed in reply, and Steve grinned quietly to himself.

"No, no, no!" Steve heard Rick Carterís voice say.

Turning his head a bit, Steve took in the conversation taking place at the far end of the coffee table. Joe sat indian style on the floor, looking across the coffee table at the two furs with him. Seated on the other end of the sectional "L"- shaped sofa from Steve was Dakota, with Rick in the recliner between she and Joe.

"You must have had a few too many beers, Joe," the badger continued. "That was the first time Dakota and I went out, the evening after the fire flight."

"The Hell you say," the coyote grinned as he reached towards the coffee table for his beer. "Why does it feel like you two have been an item for a lot longer than that?" he teased gently. He was rewarded by an ever-so-slight change of hue beneath Dakotaís fur as the squirrel blushed. Rick leaned over and swatted at Joeís ear with a paw.

"Thanks for that, buddy!" the badger growled happily as Joe ducked.

"How long have you and Annie been together, Joe?" Dakota wanted to know.

Steve saw the far away look come to the coyoteís eyes. Heíd heard this story before, too, and he knew that look.

He turned a bit more to look at the huge marmot seated next to him on the sofa, cradling a small coyfox pup. Marie Latrans was fast asleep in her Uncle Timmyís arms, oblivious to the commotion of conversation going on all around her.

Steveís golden eyes softened as he looked at the expression on Tim Rigginís face. Repressed fatherhood glowed in the marmotís brown eyes. Steve had no knowledge of the problems Tim and Janie had been facing regarding raising kits of their own, but it was quite obvious to him that Tim had a very soft spot in his heart for Joe and Annieís pups.

"Is this as good as flying?" Steve asked quietly, nodding to the seven year old pup in Timís arms.

"In some ways itís much better," Tim replied in his deep baritone growl. Tilting his head back momentarily to look at the ceiling he said "Up there Iím free of earthly constraints and concerns, but here..." His head lowered, his gaze briefly locking on the cougar across the room before his muzzle lowered to kiss the coyfox pup gently between her little ears. "Here Iím at peace."

Steve nodded, momentarily focusing on the skunk on the floor in the center of the room with the other females. She was animated, gesturing excitedly with her paws as she described something to her comapnions.

"I think Iím beginning to know what you mean, Tim," the wolf replied as he turned to face the marmot once again.

Timís eyes locked on Steveís. "Yeah?" When the wolf made no reply he added "How so?"

Steve grinned at him as he rose from the sofa. Tossing an "Iíll be back," over his shoulder, the wolf headed out of the great room in search of something.

# # #

It was a cold, damp evening in southern California. The smell of rain hung heavy in the air once again. The storms had been coming every week or so, it seemed the last one had just passed through a few days ago, and now the next one was here. The sky was overcast close overhead, reflecting the dull glow from millions of surface lights back to any observer who happened to look up. No stars were visible, and to the west ceilings were lowering and visibility was reduced. That way the sky was very dark indeed.

An ambulance pulled in to the emergency entrance at Huntington Memorial Hospital, itís strobes flashing and wig-wags blinking, but no siren blared. It seemed to be moving at a casual pace, as though it were stopping to resupply.

Halting after backing up to the double doors of emergency receiving, the crew of the ambulance stepped down from the cab and made their way back to the rear doors of the unit. Opening them, they removed a stretcher gurney combo with a sheet- draped figure on it. As they guided the gurney through the double entry doors of the emergency room receiving area a third crewfur from the ambulance helped another figure down from the back of the unit.

This final fur was elderly, perhaps in itís seventies, wrapped in a long coat. It was difficult to tell gender in the dark, but the gray around the canine muzzle was easy enough to see. The attendant from the ambulance placed an arm about the elder furís shoulders and guided it through the double doors into the emergency room.

# # #

The Bitch seemed to fairly glow with pride, standing center stage in the large hangar belonging to Intermountain Charter at Port Columbus International. In the otherwise empty hangar a brown bear sat in a directorís chair about twenty feet in front of and below her number four prop hub, his eyes slowly roving over the airframe. He occasionally scribbled a note on a clipboard in his lap. The hangar was quiet, the only sound the distant noise of an occasional aircraft arriving or departing one of the runways to the north. As Jerry Kitt studied the C-130 his jaw worked a toothpick in his mouth.

The final touch had been a repaint. So much aluminum had been removed from and reinstalled on the wing, and the rest of the finish was in such bad shape, that Matt had finally caved in to Jerry's insistance and authorized a repaint. No frills, no logos or identifying markings, just a simple flat gray with black tail numbers. Jerry smiled to himself. He had a friend at the paint shop, and The Bitch now proudly carried a one by three-foot stars- and-stripes emblem high on each side of her vertical fin. Matt would be pleasantly surprised.

She was done. He hadnít totaled the labor hours yet, and would probably never learn the true expense of the spar and other parts from Matt. All anyone seemed to know was that one day the Lear 55 was gone, and a few days later an aging C-141 Starlifter with no markings other than a tail number had set down in Columbus just long enough to disgorge the spar, two Allison turbines with propeller assemblies, various smaller parts, and no paperwork.

Matt had grinned at the bear, saying only "This isnít the best of it, Jerry. Wait and see."

For some reason this made Jerry Kitt profoundly nervous. Whenever Matt had a secret, sooner or later it wound up being overtime for Jerry and his team of wrench-heads. In spite of this the bear was not upset by the prospect. Truth be known, he loved his work, and loved wrenching and tweaking the old military airframes Matt occasionally brought around. For a brief moment, when he had first seen the old Starlifter, he had wondered if Matt had traded the Lear for that and the parts it delivered. He had almost laughed out loud at the complete ridiculousness of that concept. The old C-141 looked like a horrid, jet-propelled collection of spare parts.

Jerry looked at his clipboard and sighed quietly. He could probably get the FAA to sign off on his paperwork tomorrow, and would have The Bitch ready to go by the time Matt and Angie returned from Kansas City. The only thing remaining was to have Rick Arnett sign off on the radar system, and she would be in full readiness, ready to start earning her keep again..

Jerryís ears rotated slightly as a door opened behind him. He heard the sound of feet rapidly approaching him from behind. He grinned.

The two cubs attacked him from behind with squeals of joy. The bear rolled out of his chair onto the floor, taking the cubs down with him. Something approximating a brief scuffle ensued, while the two cubs tried to position themselves to tickle their father as he in turn tickled them. The mass of fur blurred in motion for a few moments, and then suddenly Jerry was standing with a cub under each arm, his clipboard on the floor.

Sheryl Kitt was standing a few feet away, paws on hips, a broad smile on her face.

"Are you three done now?" the brown bear asked her husband lightly.

Their cubs Rolly and Zeke both squirmed, grunting with the effort of trying to wiggle out of their fatherís grip, but they were held fast.

"I think so," Jerry said, as though he held nothing more than a copy of the evening paper under each massive arm.

Sheryl studied her husbandís face as he put the cubs down on the floor.

"You look tired," she said, a note of concern in her voice.

Jerry stared at his high school sweetheart. A brown bear like him, they were both from the same part of the world, the mountain country along the Colorado / New Mexico border.

"Thereís nothing wrong with me," he said, letting his exhaustion show just a bit, "that a warm meal and a good backrub wonít fix."

Sheryl moved into his arms. "I havenít seen you in two and a half days," she said quietly without rancor, just concern. "Youíve really outdone yourself," she said, briefly glancing at the C-130 behind him. Returning her gaze to his eyes she reached up with a paw to tweak an ear. "I think," she whispered, a grin spreading across her muzzle, "that youíre going to enjoy more than a meal and a backrub this evening."

Jerry smiled as he kissed his wifeís cheek.

"Hey Rolly," he eventually said to his eight year old son, "hows about handing me that clipboard?"

The cub held the clipboard up to his father, but instead of taking the board from him the bear picked the cub up in one arm. Sheryl took Zeke by a paw, and took her husbandís free paw with her other. Without further conversation they departed the hangar.

# # #

At Huntington Memorial an elderly female coyote sat alone in a chair near the nurseís station in the emergency room, quietly weeping. She now had so much to do, and no one to help her.

# # #

Steve held a half-empty beer bottle in one paw and smacked it with the spoon he held in the other. Standing to one side of the coffee table opposite the sofa, he suppressed a grin as he called "OK everyone, gather Ďround. Iíve got a toast to make."

The other furs in the room looked up, varying looks of amused curiosity on their faces.

"Címon..., címon..." Steve waved his paws at his friends, indicating that they should gather around.

The black wolf waited patiently as they arranged themselves around the coffee table, some on the sofa, a few on the floor. Janie Riggins and Joshua Latrans sat either side of Janie's husband Tim, who still held the sleeping Marie Latrans in his arms. Annie was next to Janie on Tim's right, with Joe on an arm of the sofa on Annie's other side. Rick offered his recliner to Dakota and sat on the floor next to her. Matt dragged over a couple of chairs from the dining area for he and Angie. Randy and Melanie pulled up some rug on Steveís left, Molly likewise sat on the floor on his right.

When they were settled Steve cleared his throat and began.

"First, to all of you. Pilots, spouses, family. Thank you for coming to our home and sharing in our fun." The wolf held his beer up in a salute to the assembled furs in the room and took a small drink. Those around him with drinks did likewise.

"This has been a wonderful evening for Molly and I," Steve continued. "Iíve been looking forward to this night for some time." He paused briefly, considering his words. "I canít think of any group Iíd rather share this night with."

Molly looked up quickly at her fiancee, her breath catching in her throat.

"As you know, Molly and I have been unofficially engaged for a few months now..."

Molly swallowed against the sudden tightness in her throat. "Seventeen." she interjected nervously with a smile.

Steve paused as he smiled down at her and nodded.

"Seventeen," he said softly. "Anyway, however long itís been, itís been long enough."

He held a paw out to his seated lady. Taking it, she rose to stand next to him. It became very quiet in the room as their friends, sensing what was coming, leaned forward and held their collective breath.

Steve continued to hold Mollyís left paw with his right. "Tonight has been a pivotal event for us in so many ways. This is the first time Molly and I have entertained on a large scale here in our home, and we've enjoyed the experience immensely. Together the lot of us have discussed, and will continue to discuss as the days go forth, our collective futures as employees and family of Intermountain. And whatever the future holds for this crew I know that we will meet it as friends. And while our future may be full of questions as regards whoís going to be flying what from where, there is one thing I have absolutely no uncertainty about at all."

Turning to face Molly, the wolfís left paw rose to take her paw in both of his.

Steve spoke to her as if the rest of the furs had suddenly vanished, as if the two of them were alone in the room. "Molly, our future is full of uncertainty, as usual," he said quietly. "But one thing I know, and that is that no matter what our future holds, I want to face it with you. With your love and the support of our friends here, I believe we can take on anything the world can throw at us."

Steve smiled nervously as a tear formed in Mollyís right eye and slowly traced itís way down the black fur of her cheek. His right paw moved ever so slightly, and suddenly a diamond ring appeared between his fingers. It was an old slight of paw trick that seemed immensely appropriate.

Some female in the room squealed ever so slightly. A deep male voice chuckled quietly.

Steve sighed slightly, his nervous smile softening to a smile of joy.

"Molly, a long time ago you and I agreed that we would get married someday, but we were just getting started in careers and there seemed so much uncertainty and instability in life. Well, weíve grown up a bit since then, and Iíve learned that absolute stability and safety will probably never grace our lives, so we need to grab what happiness we can while itís there for the taking."

The wolf paused again to take a small drink. Dragging his gaze away from Molly's eyes for only a moment, he placed the beer bottle on the table next to them. His eyes returned to hers. "Fate has been good to me, Molly," he said slowly. "Sheís been a kind teacher. Iíve come to understand that life is for sharing, not hoarding. I canít taste the fullness that life offers alone, I need someone to share it with me, someone that I adore very much."

Mollyís eyes bored into Steveís. He stared back fearlessly. "Molly, will you marry me?"

Not a fur breathed in the room as another tear slowly headed for the collar of Mollyís blouse. The skunk seemed frozen in time. Thirty years hence Steve would still be able to recall with perfect clarity the way his love looked at that very moment. Her dark fur shining, her white hair a brilliant contrast. Her big, glassy hazel eyes staring at him, a subtle look of victory long anticipated mixing with the sheer joy of the moment was attempting to hide on the edge of her expression. Her future boldly stared her in the face and beckoned, and she was ready to embrace it.

"Say yes!" a female voice whispered just loudly enough to be heard. "Say yes!"

The skunk stood rooted to the floor, motionless, staring at the wolf who had just publicly proclaimed his love for her and his desire to set a date for their marriage. Her mind was a whirlwind of notions, ideas, plans, dreams...

A different female voice whispered a bit louder than the first. "Yes, girl. The answer is yes!"

"Molly?" Mattís playfully loud, gruff voice sounded almost irritated. "Iíd like to breathe, here..."

Mollyís brain shifted from the ecstatic savoring of the moment to the reality of the situation. She threw her arms around the wolfís neck, crying "Yes!" over and over as she buried her nose in the fur of his shoulder.

Steve held her in his arms, his right paw stroking the fur of her shoulders as he gazed at his friends, the joy shining from his own eyes.

At once most of the furs present drew a noisy breath, let their muscles unknot, and suddenly congratulations burst forth from a dozen tongues.

"Woo Hoo!" Randy Clarkson shouted with glee. It was kind of cool, watching one of his own become engaged right under his nose.

Even little Marie Latrans was awake, curious as to what all the commotion was about. Annie took a few moments to explain what had just happened to her. The little coyfox squealed in glee upon understanding.

Marie watched her father rise up from the arm of the sofa, a beer in his paw. Joe stepped carefully past the feet of several of his friends to stand next to Steve. He placed a paw on his friendís shoulder. After a few moments Steve looked up at him.

Joe cleared his throat and spoke loudly enough for all of them to hear.

"Buddy, you and I have shared the worst of times together. Weíve seen the wrong side of our business, you and I, yet somehow with God's help we survived to be here."

Molly lifted her head from Steveís shoulder to look at Joe.

"He has a plan for you and Molly, as He has a plan for each and every one of us here," Joe continued. "Iím excited to be part of that plan. I'm honored, as Iím sure all our friends are," and here Joe gestured with the paw holding the beer bottle to the other furs present, "that you chose to share this special moment with us. I think I can speak for us all when I say that you can count on our support and love, no matter what the future brings."

A pawful of male voices quietly chorused "Here! Here!"

Joe winked at Molly. "Congratulations, kiddo."

Molly was almost speechless as she turned to face the assembled furs in the room, her friends. She spent several seconds gesturing gently with her paws at nothing in particular while her mind raced yet again, and finally giggled briefly before she said "thank you" quietly. Suddenly her friends all began to clap their paws and loudly say "Good show!" and "Congratulations!" Conversation buzzed anew with plans for the future.

# # #

Out at the Joint Cargo ramp at Kansas City International the night patrol truck pulled up in front of the war-weary C-130 parked there, itís motor idling noisily. A spotlight illuminated and swiveled around to point at the ground below the number one nacelle of the aged transport.

"Look at that!" a voice growled in displeasure.

"Jesus Christ!" another voice rejoined. "How long has this been here?"

"Only since this afternoon," the first voice said.

"Damn! That looks like itís leaking a gallon an hour or more," second voice replied.

"Thatís not all," first voice challenged, and the spotlight beam moved to illuminate the ramp under each of the remaining three engines. Each had produced a similar, if not quite as large, puddle of oil.

"Damn!" second voice repeated. "Each of those will take a bag of absorbent, maybe two."

"A hundred pounds per engine?" first voice asked incredulously.

There was a pause while second voice considered as the spotlight beam moved to examine each puddle again. "Yep," he finally grumbled in assessment. "A hundred per."

"Shit!" first voice exclaimed. "Letís get this guyís tail number. Somebodyís gonna pay for the work Iím gonna have to do. No free rides!"

# # #

The doctor sat quietly, waiting for the aged coyote to pause in her weeping. She had been quietly grieving since she had arrived. The nurses had initially tried to console her, but the old coyote would have none of it, waving them off. They had given up after about ten minutes and respectfully left her to her own devices.

The feline had been sitting with her for several minutes already, and she had barely acknowledged his presence. He fidgeted with his stethoscope for a few moments, watching her. At length the doctor sighed in mild frustration. He hated this part of his job. He took the coyoteís paw in his own gently.

"His passing was quick, Maria. Most likely he felt nothing. One moment he was there, the next..." His voice trailed off as her weeping began anew.

It was quiet in the emergency room at Huntington Memorial. Only two other beds were occupied besides the one that Mariaís deceased husband lay on. The other patients were sleeping, the floor nurses were busily engaged in make-work to give the doctor and the coyote some privacy.

The doctor looked at a clipboard in his lap, studying the form contained there. Time of death was recorded as 8:27 PM, the time the ambulance arrived at their sliding double doors. He looked up and placed a paw on the coyoteís shaking shoulders.

"Maria, there are things that must be done now," he said firmly. "I know it seems harsh, but we have forms to fill out, phone calls to make, family to notify." He paused, watching the waves of emotion crash against her proud face as she looked up to him. "You may require assistance in these matters. Is there someone we should call? Do you have anyone who should be here now?"

The coyote nodded as she struggled visibly to regain control of her emotions. After taking several ragged, deep breaths she had calmed enough to speak, her tears subsiding enough to allow her enough vision to look him in the eye.

"Yes," she said, suddenly quiet. "There is someone I need to call."

# # #

Joe and Annie sat at the dining room table in the condo in Thomas Heights with Tim and Janie Riggins. Annie held little Marie, who had again fallen asleep, and Janie held Joshua, whoís eyes indicated that he was moments from joining his sister in slumber. The four adults looked on fondly as the rest of the furs clustered around Steve and Molly.

"Brings back fond memories, huh?" Joe said, looking at Tim. The marmot and the cougar had stood up for Joe and Annie at their wedding all those years ago.

The marmot nodded tiredly, stifling a yawn. It was getting late, and there had been a lot of flying between them that day.

"What a sweet way to propose, in front of us like that," Janie said happily. She and Annie both gazed at Molly and the other furs who seemed to orbit about the happy couple. Molly couldnít stop stealing glances at the diamond ring that was now on her left paw, and this brought additional smiles to the muzzles of the Riggins and Latrans as they watched.

The rest of the furs in the room were clustered around the happy couple except for Matt and Angie. Those two were camped on the sofa, bemused expressions on each of their faces, watching Steve and Molly from a comparative distance.

Six paws reflexively reached for hip holsters as six others reached for purses in response to the sound of a ringing cellular phone. Most were hardly aware of the conditioned response they had just exhibited as they returned to happy conversation, knowing it was not their phone that was making the offending noise.

Joe came up with his ringing phone and wondered who would be calling him as he flipped it open. All his friends were here...

"Hi, this is Joe."

Annie studied her husbandís face casually as he stared into the middle distance, listening. A moment later she flinched involuntarily as she saw the color drain from his face beneath his fur and his jaw set in an unpleasant, grim manner.

"Slow down..." Joe rumbled the order and then paused, ears up, listening.

Annie nudged Janie under the table with her foot gently and the cougar tuned in.

The fur on Joeís shoulders and the back of his neck fluffed just a bit. Annie could see something burning in his eyes. It was a look she was unfamiliar with.

"What?" Joe said a little too loudly. "Say that again?"

Janie looked at Tim. The marmot was suddenly wide awake, studying his best friend intently. She returned her attention to Joe.

"God damn it." Joe sighed quietly as a paw came up to run through his hair. It stopped on the top of his head and he leaned forward, placing the elbow on the table and supporting his head with the paw. After a moment an odd sort of growl escaped his throat.

"OK mom, OK. Settle down." Joe winced and held the phone away from his ear. Something approximating a tinny howl could be heard clearly, emanating from the handset. Joeís ears flattened against his head as his fangs appeared briefly.

His wife and best friends stared at him, their concern growing by the moment. None of them knew what was happening, but it was obviously news ill received. Annie knew a bit more, though. She knew that in all the years they had been married she had met Joeís mother only once, briefly, and it hadnít been a pleasant meeting. Joe rarely, if ever, discussed his parents with anyone.

"Weíll have none of this now," the coyote growled menacingly into his phone. "Itís way too late to start all this crap. You just sit tight, Annie and I will be there to help by noon tomorrow." He paused to listen for a moment, then interrupted. "No, you wonít!" he spat. "You want our help, you sit tight and do nothing. You want to take charge, knock yourself out, but donít bother us with it! Got it?"

Annie leaned over to whisper in Janieís ear. "This is not good. Whatever is happening, I know that Joeís relationship with his parents hasnít been good."

Joeís eyes glanced quickly around the room as his teeth ground silently, his gaze coming to rest on his wife. Something in his eyes implored her for help and understanding. And as suddenly as Annie had recognized that look it had vanished, replaced by a look of veiled hatred.

"Screw that!" he hissed into the phone, sitting up straight. "You do as I say and do nothing! I will handle it." His free paw balled into a fist and smacked the tabletop. "You keep your paws off, and donít sign anything until I get there, entiendes? CŠllate y siťntate en las manos!"

Joe flipped the phone closed angrily and stared at Annie, his respirations somewhat deep. Emotions chased each other across his face.

Annie touched his paw cautiously with her own. "Honey, whatís happened?"

Joeís face suddenly went blank, his eyes becoming vacant. He stared silently into the distance, unmoving, not breathing.

Tim leaned forward, staring into his friends suddenly colorless eyes. "Joe?"

"My fatherís dead," the coyote said quietly, exhaling.

On the other side of the room the happy conversation continued, the furs involved oblivious to the small drama that had just transpired nearby. Annie, Tim, and Janie stared at Joe, dumbfounded by this turn of events. Thankfully, Marie and Joshua were both fast asleep.

Annie's paw slid over her husband's and her grip tightened, squeezing his paw. She hoped to convey reassurance and support.

Joe sighed, the sound conveying resignation to an unpleasant task.

"Tomorrow morning we fly to Los Angeles."

 



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