Characters, situations, and the PPTH all belong to David Shore, FOX, and whoever else holds the copyright. I'm just taking 'em out for a spin.
This story is what happens when I mainline old House episodes, re-read The Gun Seller, and then fall asleep and have cracked-out dreams. For some reason, my brain decided that House needed an Adventure. I was only too happy to comply.
I could never have written this without two invaluable sources-- the eMedicine database and the fanfic_med Yahoo group. A million thanks to the marvelous members of the latter who answered all my inane questions. Any medical inaccuracies that may remain are mine and mine alone, and while I've tried to make it as accurate as possible, I had absolutely no prior knowledge of medicine or biology. So please, take everything with a grain of salt, or perhaps even a Great Salt Lake.
Safe From Harm
by Maya Tawi
"Tell us what it is, dangerous
Friends and enemies, I find it's contagious
And they're spreading through your system like a virus
Yes, the trouble, in the end it makes you anxious"
--Massive Attack, "Safe From Harm"
The woman in Exam Room 2 was visibly nervous, smoothing her stylish skirt over her thighs and crossing and re-crossing her legs. Her first words were, "Can we do this quickly? I don't have much time."
Dr. Gregory House blinked at her, turned, and started back toward the door.
The woman's voice rose an octave or two. "Where are you going?"
"To fetch someone," House said over his shoulder, "who cares less about whatever disease you may have than your own personal timetable. Don't worry, this hospital is full of extremely busy doctors. I'm sure I'll find one who can sympathize."
"No, don't-- please!" She sounded near panic. "I'm sorry, I don't-- Take all the time you need. I mean, of course you will. It's just-- he--"
House stopped with one hand on the doorknob.
In a low voice, she said, "My husband doesn't like me to be gone long."
Great. House rolled his eyes, then took a deep breath and slowly turned around.
"Shirley Knowles," he pronounced, glancing at the chart, then back at the patient. She looked young for her age-- 36-- and supremely arranged, the way that only old money could look. "Fever, abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting. Traveled recently? Gone camping? Eaten at any fast-food chains?"
"I-- my husband and I were in Mexico last week," she offered after a moment. "He had a business trip."
"And he took his wife along? Brave man." House pressed gently against her abdomen, noting her discomfort. No hard masses, nothing that seemed out of place. "Bacterial gastroenteritis. Next time, don't drink the water."
"Then stay the hell out of Mexico. On general principle." He scribbled quickly on a prescription pad. "Ciprofloxacin, one a day for five days. Come back if you don't get better and we'll try again."
Shirley Knowles looked startled. "What-- that's it?"
"Well, gee," House said. "If you've got time to kill, we could go get a bite to eat, maybe see a movie. I certainly have nothing better to do."
She flushed. "You don't have to be rude."
"It's a hobby, not a requirement. And anyway, I was serious." House glanced at his watch; just over an hour left of clinic duty. "Come on, we'll call it patient therapy. I play my cards right, I might even get paid for the time."
Shirley Knowles stood with great dignity, gathering her coat and purse. "I have to go."
With amusement, House realized that she thought he was hitting on her. Well, he'd been accused of worse.
"Right," was all he said. "Wouldn't want to keep your husband waiting."
She swept past him, and he called after her, "Mrs. Knowles."
Her shoulders stiffened.
"Drugs," House said simply.
She turned to him, looking blank, and then her gaze fell on the prescription still in his outstretched hand.
"Call me!" he called after her, as she strode out, prescription tucked safely in her purse. He waited just a beat too long before adding, "If the symptoms come back, I mean."
A less well-bred woman, he was sure, would have flipped him off.
Why Shirley Knowles had driven over fifty miles from her hometown to visit a free clinic, when she could clearly afford the best, was a mystery that House briefly noted and then filed away in the back of his brain. It was all down to the husband, he was sure, and the only reason he hadn't asked her was that he really didn't want to hear about it. If the man would begrudge his wife the time she needed to get treatment for a potentially fatal disease, he certainly wasn't worth wasting any spare brain cells on.
He expounded on this particular theme at considerable length in the hospital cafeteria, at which point Wilson said very reasonably, "Then why are you ranting about it now?"
"Because the depth of human stupidity," House said, "never ceases to amaze me." He popped his last Vicodin and peered into the empty bottle. "Whoops, all gone. May I please have seconds, Daddy?"
Wilson shook his head. "And here I thought you didn't care about your patients. The clinic patients especially."
"I don't care about her," House said. "She's not the one being an idiot. Except for the part where she is, because she's still with him."
"Oh, right," Wilson said. "Abused women are so weak-willed. It's a character flaw."
"She didn't have any bruises."
"That's not the only form of abuse, and you know it."
"Yeah? Well, I'm rubber and you're glue and I am so incredibly bored." House scowled at his half-eaten sandwich. "Why don't you ever take me someplace fun?"
"Because you're impossible to take out in public," Wilson said mildly. "I'd have to dig up the choke chain and the muzzle, and I think they got lost in the move."
"You remember what happened the last time we went to a movie theater, of course. What was it-- '98, '99?"
"I'll have to check the ticket when I get home. I'm sure I pinned it up right next to my prom corsage."
"The only reason you didn't get your ass handed to you was because those men were too polite to beat up a cripple. Which, by the way, one of these days you're going to piss off somebody who isn't."
"Which you've been saying for years now, and it hasn't happened yet. I may have to reconsider my rosy opinion of human nature. Besides, it was a crappy movie." House popped the last of his sandwich in his mouth and pointed at the half-eaten pickle on Wilson's plate. "Are you going to finish that?" he mumbled around the food.
Wilson looked gratifyingly disgusted at the display. He blinked. "You hate pickles."
House swallowed with a mighty effort; years of dry-swallowing Vicodin made the movement almost instinctual. "Was that a yes or a no?"
"Why the sudden interest in my pickle?"
Wilson refused to be baited. "Go ahead if you're finished. I'm not on duty for another half hour."
House glared at him.
Wilson looked first at House, then at the empty pill bottle on the table, and comprehension visibly dawned. He frowned and said, "You just took one."
"Yes," House said testily, "and in far too few hours I'll have to take another one. And--" he glanced at his watch-- "that annoying pharmacist just started her shift."
"The one who won't let you fill your own prescription?"
"No, the one who won't let me grab her rack. What do you think?"
"I think it should probably surprise me more than it does that you've memorized the shift rotation in the pharmacy."
"Yes, well," House said, "I think you were clinically insane when you bought those shoes. Are you going to eat the damn pickle or not?" He knew he was being testier than usual, testier than the situation warranted even from him, but for Christ's (or someone's) sake, James ought to know by now not to question the rate at which he went through his pills. He was looking at House like-- like Foreman did.
It was annoying as hell.
He held Wilson's gaze, narrowing his eyes in challenge, and eventually Wilson sighed and gave up, like he always did. "Fine," he said, and stood. "I'm done."
House stood too, with considerably less grace. "Good doctor. You get a biscuit."
"You won't even let me have a pickle."
"You can have all the pickles you want approximately five minutes from now. I'll buy you a goddamn pickle."
"And they say romance is dead," Wilson said, pitching both his and House's napkins and sandwich wrappers into the trash can and following him to the elevator.
"Too bad your wife never buys you pickles."
"Julie buys me plenty of pickles."
"Too bad your wife doesn't buy your shoes. She couldn't possibly have worse taste than you do."
"Of course not," Wilson said, his voice criminally dry. "Julie has impeccable taste."
House recognized a deliberate conversational ender when he heard one and, for some reason he was reluctant to identify, elected not to press the point for once. Instead, he whistled tunelessly all the way to the clinic and tried not to think about Shirley Knowles and her husband, who weren't worth the effort. Tried to ignore the part of his brain that was busy fitting pieces together and wasn't satisfied with the final picture.
Maybe he'd check in with Cameron. See if she had any real cases for him.
Five days later, after a case of suspected meningitis turned out to be an intracranial abscess, the abscess was excised, and the patient was placed on a prolonged antibiotics course, House finally had time to breathe again. He left Chase and Cameron monitoring the patient's vitals and retreated to his office.
Someone was waiting for him.
House cast a quick eye over the man, mentally reviewing his clinic patients from the past week and coming up blank. If he wasn't about to get sued again, he wasn't interested.
"Go away," he said, unlocking his office door.
The man ignored him, following him into the office, and House turned to him with a peeved expression. "What part of 'go away' don't you understand?"
"Dr. House?" The man sounded dubious.
"Congratulations. You can read." House laid his cane on his desk and opened the top drawer, frowning at the mess within. Now where had he left--
"Doctor, my wife saw you in the clinic last week with-- ah--" He paused, then said delicately, "Stomach trouble. Shirley Knowles. I need the records of that visit."
"No," House said, as he continued to rummage. "Go away."
To his credit, the man barely missed a beat. "She's switched doctors, and the new one needs her medical records. I thought maybe we could cut through some red tape, you could just give them to me."
House gave him a long, flat stare, noting the man's confidence, his outthrust chin and expectant look. This was a man used to getting his own way. House was familiar with the condition.
He turned back to the mess in the drawer and said, "Your request is patently ridiculous, and while I would love to spend the next two hours explaining to you in exhaustive detail just why that is, I happen to be in the midst of a crisis at the moment, so--" Just then, his fingers finally found the portable television hidden beneath a pile of crumpled receipts, and he grasped it in triumph. "Ah. Crisis averted. Are you still here?"
This time, the man sounded less sure of himself. "Dr. House, my wife is very ill. She's not in her right mind--"
"Really? Has her tummy trouble gone to her brain? There could be a paper in this." He waited exactly two seconds for the answer he knew wouldn't come, and then slammed the drawer shut and fixed the man with a penetrating look. "Okay. Let me spell this out for you. You have absolutely no legal right to the Knowles woman's file, a fact of which you are obviously very much aware. Even if you were her husband, which I highly doubt is the case, and even if she were mentally incapacitated, which I also doubt, that would not change the essential facts of the case. I can't help you. Get out."
"I don't--" the man sputtered. "I don't know who you think-- of course I am--"
"You're not wearing a wedding ring," House recited, closing his eyes in irritation. "Granted, not every married man does, and you're certainly enough of a bastard to be the esteemed Mr. Knowles. But given the shoddy quality of the suit you're wearing, or rather the suit that's wearing you, as well as the fact that you are actually wearing a polyester tie, I'm dubious of the veracity of your claim." He paused. "In other words: Liar, liar, pants on fire. Care to tell me why you're so interested in that file?"
"No? What a surprise." He sat down, propping his bad leg up on the desk, and flicked on the small TV. "Go away, I'm busy."
He didn't look up as the man left, but he wasn't paying attention to the tiny doctors onscreen, either. His mind was racing. And when he heard the door close after the fake Mr. Knowles, he rested his chin on his hand and murmured, "Interesting."
During the commercial break, he unearthed Shirley Knowles's file and slipped it inside his briefcase.
Some light reading with dinner might be nice. There wasn't anything interesting on TV that night anyway.
"Differential diagnosis," House said the next morning, as he strode with some effort across the conference room to the whiteboard. He started scribbling as he spoke. "Fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain. Assume gastroenteritis is off the table. What else?"
He turned around and waited. His team was still paused in the midst of whatever they'd been doing before he'd walked in. Chase held the coffee pot in one hand and a mug in the other; Cameron was making notes on a file in front of her; Foreman was leaning across the table towards her, caught in mid-conversation.
"Well?" House demanded, when no immediate answers were forthcoming. "I'm waiting."
"Good morning to you, too," Foreman muttered.
House scowled at him. "Do I look like I'm having a good morning?"
"No," Chase said, after a moment's consideration.
"How can you tell?" he heard Cameron murmur.
House rolled his eyes. "Can we stop discussing me now? Fascinating as the subject may be--"
"Giardiasis," Chase piped up.
House shot him a look. Chase sipped his coffee and cocked one eyebrow over the rim of his mug.
"Good one," House acknowledged, and wrote it down. "Next?"
"IBD," Cameron said, and Chase added, "Dysentery."
House glanced at the silent Foreman as he wrote. Foreman still looked annoyed.
"Appendicitis," Cameron said, after a moment.
"No rigidity, and no specific RLQ tenderness." House paused. "Though that's not necessarily conclusive."
"So why don't you run a CT scan?"
"He speaks!" House exclaimed, and Foreman glared at him.
"Who's the patient?" Cameron was writing again. "I'll order the CT--"
"As it happens," House said, "the subject of this particular discussion is no longer a patient at this hospital."
Cameron's pen froze.
"So what's the point?" Foreman demanded.
House looked at him in surprise. "Indulging my curiosity, of course. Can you think of a better reason?"
Foreman snorted. Quietly.
"Oh, come on," House scoffed. "Like you lot have anything better to do than sit by the bedside of--" He paused and gestured vaguely.
"Parker," Chase supplied.
Cameron began, "She's responding well to--"
"Yes, yes, happy bluebirds, frabjous day," House cut in, tapping the marker impatiently against the whiteboard. "I'm moving on now. Who's with me?"
Chase raised his hand a little.
House gave Chase his own version of the eyebrow-cock. "I wasn't actually asking for a headcount."
Chase just shrugged and put his hand down.
Foreman made a disgusted sound and pushed his chair back. "I'm going to go check on Parker," he said, standing. "Page me if we get any real cases."
"Say hi to him for me!" House called after him.
Foreman waved a dismissive hand over his shoulder.
"Her," Cameron murmured.
"I knew that."
He had just turned back to the whiteboard when the door opened and Wilson poked his head in. "Have you been to your office yet?"
"And a good morning to you, too," House chirped, far too pleased when Chase choked on his coffee.
Wilson just gave him a strange look. "Yeah. Whatever. Have you seen it?"
House frowned. "No, I just foolishly assumed it would still be where I left it. Is it missing? Should we put out a bulletin?"
"You'd better come look," Wilson said, and ducked out again.
Curiosity piqued, House followed.
The place was ransacked.
"They weren't sure at first if it was actually a break-in," Wilson said from behind him, "given your general state of disarray. But they figured you probably wouldn't have broken your own lock."
House surveyed the destruction with interest. Files were spilled all over the floor, crumpled and visibly trampled. The contents of all his drawers and cabinets were strewn everywhere. A glass paperweight lay smashed on the floor.
"Huh," he said after a moment.
Chase and Cameron were in the hall behind them, craning their necks to see the damage. They'd followed House and Wilson out of the conference room to the next door down the hall; House hadn't unlocked the connecting door between his office and the conference room yet. He heard Chase snicker softly, then whisper to Cameron, "I thought Foreman was working late yesterday."
"Ha ha," House said loudly, without turning to look at them. "Don't you two have hands to hold?"
"Not really," Chase said.
"Go find some."
They shuffled away like barely-chastised schoolchildren, still whispering, and Wilson shot House a sidelong glance and lowered his voice. "Someone went through all the clinic records as well. Is there anything you'd like to share with the rest of the class?"
"Yeah," House said, and jiggled the doorknob. "I need a new lock."
Wilson sighed. "The police want to talk to you. They're waiting in Cuddy's office. Try not to piss them off."
"Nonsense," House said briskly, turning on his heel and starting for the administrator's office. "Everyone likes me. I'm a people person."
"You keep saying that," Wilson said, in a passable Inigo Montoya accent. "I don't think it means what you think it means."
House opened his mouth for a snappy retort, but Wilson was already halfway down the hall in the other direction, hurrying towards the oncology department. He must have been waiting around Diagnostic Medicine all morning for House to show up so he could break the news in person. Typical.
The Princeton police turned out to be an older, heavyset woman with a stubborn jaw, and a younger man with closely-cropped dark hair. House greeted them with, "Can we do this quickly? Apparently I have an office to redecorate."
"Dr. House, I presume," the policewoman said, sticking out her hand. "You don't seem too concerned about this."
"On the contrary. That was my favorite paperweight."
"Doctor," Cuddy murmured from her seat on the sofa, in a voice of veiled steel.
The policewoman ignored him and said, "I'm Detective Schaeffer, this is Officer Lowell. Any idea what they might have been looking for?"
"Nope." House paused. "Are we done?"
Schaeffer gave him a weary look. "Sit down, Dr. House."
"I'd rather not."
He saw her eyes flick to his cane. The still-silent Lowell looked amused. He held a pad of paper in one hand, pen poised to take notes.
After a moment, she sighed and asked, "Is there anyone who might have it in for you? Anyone mad at you for some reason?"
Oh, honestly. Where to start?
Cuddy was obviously thinking along similar lines. She snorted. "You got a few hours?"
"Dr. Cuddy!" House exclaimed in mock-reproval.
"Oh, please," Cuddy said, her voice suddenly sharp. "You go out of your way to annoy people, and patients in particular. It's only a miracle something like this hasn't happened already. If your conduct has in any way brought trouble to this hospital, then you owe it to this institution and myself to own up to it."
"Nice," House said, impressed. "How long have you been waiting to say that?"
Cuddy's glare was like ice. "How long have you been working here?"
Schaeffer cleared her throat. She and Lowell were watching them, wide-eyed. "How about it, Doctor? Something we should know?"
House shrugged, fishing for a Vicodin to stall for time. He made a face as he swallowed, then said, "I can give you my patient list and you can start from there. Other than that--" He shot Cuddy a pointed look. "--no, I can't think of anyone in particular. I'm sure Dr. Cuddy would be happy to give you an earful, if that's what you want. Personally, I have actual work to do." A bald-faced lie, of course, but neither the police nor Cuddy had the ammunition to call him on it.
Lowell cleared his throat and said, "Whoever it was seemed to be concentrating on the medical records. Have you had any suspicious patients in the clinic lately?"
House shot him a hard look. The boy was too clever for his own good. "Suspicious patients? Well, let me think, there was one incredibly tan young man with a bomb strapped under his arm--"
"He's kidding," Cuddy muttered. She looked like she was getting a migraine.
"I love having an interpreter," House remarked to the room in general. "Do you come in pocket-size?"
Cuddy closed her eyes briefly. "Oh, go back to work already."
"But we're just getting started here! I'm sure Officer Lowell would love to hear about the mass murderer with the strategically-placed scar--"
"Excuse me, Detective," House said to Schaeffer. "Clearly my presence is no longer required. If you have any more questions, I'll be cleaning my office." He paused. "Well, no, I won't-- that's what minions are for. I'll just be holding the whip." He turned back to Cuddy. "Could I borrow your whip?"
Cuddy stood and strode across the office, holding the door open. "You're excused, Dr. House."
He mock-saluted and ambled out, resisting the urge to whistle. James had told him to behave, after all.
Back in the conference room, Chase was filling out a crossword puzzle and Cameron was-- surprise, surprise-- checking House's mail. Foreman was still absent. House just pointed at his office and said, "Get to work."
They obeyed with surprisingly little complaint, probably using the opportunity to gossip some more. House disapproved of gossip when he wasn't in on the joke, but he was feeling generous today; he'd let the kids have their little fun.
While they cleaned next door, he poured his own cup of coffee and sat down at the table, resting his leg on an empty chair. Then, after a quick look around, he slid the Knowles file from its hiding place in his briefcase.
He sipped his coffee as he studied the slim file, brow furrowing. Why on Earth would someone be interested in it? The information was scarce; he hadn't even drawn blood, which was beginning to seem like a serious oversight. But it had seemed so clear-cut....
House suppressed a sigh. Of course it had. That was his trope, after all-- the diseases that weren't quite as clear-cut as they appeared. So what was special about this one?
He flipped over the medical chart and stared at his own barely-legible handwritten notes on the back: Rich. Snotty. Recently in Mexico. Scared of husband. After a moment, he took a pen to the latter, crossing out of, and with a slow, heavy hand, wrote FOR.
There. That looked better.
House frowned at the patient's personal information, lightly tapping the line listing her address and home number. Knowles had been nervous but not paranoid. Odds were she hadn't given false information.
He stretched in his chair and reached behind him, groping for the telephone without looking, and was only mildly surprised when the receiver smacked into his hand.
"Wow," he said, staring at it. "That never actually worked before."
He heard Foreman sigh. "What are you doing now?"
"None of your business," House said, and waved vaguely at his office. "Go clean."
Foreman didn't budge. "Hire a maid service."
"I thought I just did."
Foreman made an impatient sound, and House took the opportunity to punch in Shirley Knowles's phone number. The phone rang-- two, three, four, and a man's voice: Knowles residence. Leave a message.
"A man after my own heart," House commented. He broke the connection and then hit redial.
"I don't want to know, do I?"
"Probably not." House glanced at him. "So where were you last night, Eric?"
"Not here," Foreman said immediately, "which is all you need to know."
House pressed a dramatic hand to his chest. "I'm hurt, Eric, I really am. Haven't you learned by now that I need to know everything?"
Answering machine. He tried again.
"You think you do know everything," Foreman was saying. "That's your problem."
"My only one? How optimistic of you." Three, four, and still the answering machine. Redial. "If I thought I knew everything, I wouldn't need to know anything. Unless you know something I don't." He paused. "Which isn't very likely. Outside the scope of jimmying locks or fencing stolen goods, of course, but really, who's counting? Then again, I think I just forgot what we were talking about, so unless you have as well, that's at least one up you've got on me. Care to go best out of three?"
Foreman looked dazed, and annoyed. Maybe a little confused. "Yeah. Uh, I'm gonna go pretend we never had this conversation."
"Excellent!" House said brightly. "That makes two of us. Now shoo."
Foreman swept out, and House sang softly to himself, "Vic-to-reee...."
Still no one was answering the phone. House considered leaving a very earnest and concerned message, then hung up instead. Human nature; she'd never get back to him, and then that would be the end of it.
Perhaps this was one medical mystery that might actually be better solved in person.
He recognized the address Knowles had given as one in a fairly upscale neighborhood on the outskirts of New York. House propped his chin on the end of his cane, thinking. His car had refused to start again that morning, and he'd had to take the bus to work. Perhaps he should have taken the hint and stayed in bed. The day had gone steadily downhill from there.
It would be too expensive to take a taxi, even if he could find a driver willing to take him that far; and he didn't feel like navigating public transportation again, especially not in the middle of the day. That left relying on the kindness of long-suffering best friends.
He called Wilson. "You're not actually doing anything today, are you?"
Wilson sounded harried. "I did have this crazy notion of getting some work done, yes. Why?"
"I need to go up to the city."
"Don't you have clinic duty today?"
House swore loudly and slammed down the phone.
This time it was Exam Room 1, and House took only two steps inside before he looked up, stopped, and broke into a wide, not-entirely-false grin.
"Heeey," he said brightly, drawing out the word. "I know you!"
The fake Mr. Knowles stood with his hands in his pockets, studying the medical diagrams on the wall. He turned towards the door with what House supposed was meant to be a threatening expression. "Doctor."
House glanced at the chart. He'd given his name as John Smith. Well, that was original.
"Don't tell me," he said, closing the door behind him. "Tummy-slash-brain trouble is catching, isn't it? I might have to rethink my original diagnosis."
Neither-Knowles-nor-Smith looked briefly disconcerted, then went back to threatening. It was a better look for him. "You shouldn't think about it at all, Dr. House," he growled, stalking forward. "Not if you want to stay--" his eyes dropped to House's leg-- "relatively healthy."
"Nice," House said. "Not bad for a cheap shot. Have you met my boss? You two would get along great."
"Where's the file, Dr. House?"
"Yeah, see, that's the funny part." House crumpled up the man's file and tossed it into the garbage. "I never would've looked twice at it if you hadn't been so damn interested. I believe that's what they call irony. Or maybe that's just what they think they call irony."
"Where is it?" the man repeated.
House opened his eyes very wide. "You mean you haven't found it yet? Darn it, I hate to think my paperweight was sacrificed for no reason."
Not-Knowles-or-Smith stepped very close, close enough for House to smell his breath. He sniffed. "You're diabetic. Take your insulin."
"You're playing a very dangerous game, Doctor," the man said softly.
House just stared at him. He was tall, but this man almost matched him in height. Something thin and insidious began to uncoil in his stomach. He supposed it was fear.
"I'm not the only one," he said finally, keeping his voice similarly low. "She didn't get sick in Mexico, did she?"
The man just blinked and smiled, a slow, humorless, reptilian smile.
House held his gaze. "The police were here earlier. They might even still be in the building. I'm sure they'd love to talk to you. The question is, can you get off hospital property before I reach the phone?"
"Don't pursue this," the man said. "That's a warning. You'd do well to listen."
House grinned. "Oh, come on. I'll give you a head start, whaddya say?"
The man just narrowed his eyes, then turned and walked out without a word, slamming the door behind him.
House waited a few moments more, taking deep breaths. He glanced down. His knuckles were white around his cane, and he deliberately eased his grip.
Then he threw the door open and stalked across the clinic to the pharmacy.
Wilson was there, filling out a prescription form for one of his patients. House greeted him with a mild, "I believe that man just threatened my life."
Wilson didn't look up. "Just a regular day of clinic duty for you, then?"
"Thirty-six Vicodin," House said to the man behind the counter. Thank God it wasn't that pharmacist.
Wilson sighed and laid down his pen. "Okay, seriously. What's going on?"
"Nuh-uh," House said immediately, as the pharmacist handed him his pills. "You don't play hooky with me, you don't get to join the secret club. No girls allowed."
"I'll try to live with the disappointment."
House dry-swallowed a pill. "What are you doing tonight?"
"Taking Julie to dinner. Why?"
"Is it your anniversary already? How time flies."
"I know," House said with a grimace. "The memory of that hellish night is seared into my brain. I get flashbacks every time I see a damn bouquet. So what's the occasion?"
"Face it," Wilson said, starting to walk away. "You're a chick magnet."
House followed. "And you are avoiding the question."
Wilson's lips quirked in an almost-smile. "Tell me what your thug wanted, and I'll tell you why we're going to dinner."
Like he needed to ask. "Marriage falling apart again?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
After a moment, Wilson said, "Did you want to do something? I can cancel--"
"Have you noticed," House said conversationally, "that your priorities are extremely fucked up? Not to put too fine a point on it."
"Was that a yes or a no?"
House thought about it. It was tempting, but....
"Nah," he said. "It'll keep. You go have dinner with your lovely wife."
Wilson looked bemused. "Gee, thanks."
House gave him a dismissive wave. Cuddy was advancing with a file folder in hand, and she did not look happy.
Christ. He'd just started. Four more hours of this.
He didn't tell her about not-John Smith, and if pressed, would probably even think of a good reason why not.
House was out the door as soon as the little hand hit four, fast enough that when Cuddy made some snide remark about the Special Olympics, he didn't even stop to retort. He just filed the remark away in the She'll pay for it later section of his brain-- a large, well-developed and frequently-exercised area-- and kept going.
The train took him to New York, and a taxi would take him back out again. House navigated the rush-hour crowds with a black glare and a brandished cane, and managed to steal a cab out from under a young mother with two squalling brats, a triumph which pleased him immensely.
It was almost 7:00 by the time the taxi pulled up in front of the Knowles' residence, by which time House was tired, hungry, in pain, and seriously regretting whatever embryonic humanitarian impulse had led him to decline Wilson's offer. Luckily, the cab driver was a prick, and by the time House vented his spleen and exited the car without tipping, he was already feeling more cheerful. A Vicodin only improved his state of mind some more, and, sufficiently braced for human contact, he slowly climbed the walkway to the front door.
The house was massive, with a nigh-criminal flight of brick stairs leading to the entrance. House eyed it balefully, but, buoyed by the Vicodin, he made it up the stairs with minimal cursing and rang the doorbell.
No answer. He tried the doorknob-- locked, of course.
"Well," House said to the front door, "shit."
He glanced back at the street-- the taxi was, of course, long gone, and no one else was in sight. This was why he always sent his minions to break into people's homes; that way he didn't have to learn to pick locks himself. In this particular case, however, criminal enterprise would sadly be unnecessary.
House checked under the doormat, in the large clay flowerpot, and finally found the key underneath a hideous cement statue of a frog.
Once inside, he knocked loudly against the inside of the door and called, "Hello! Anyone home?"
"I'm an evil burglar, come to steal all your nice things!"
This time, the silence was broken by a weak murmur of protest.
The sound came from upstairs-- Of course, House thought wearily, and gripped his cane tightly. Drugs, think of the drugs, forget the pain and focus on the drugs, and he climbed the stairs slowly, one agonizing step after another. The Vicodin was kicking in, but not nearly fast enough.
After what seemed like an eternity, he finally reached the second floor and slumped against the wall, breathing heavily. He caught his breath and was immediately assaulted by the stench of sickness.
His own pain forgotten, House hurried down the hallway, following his nose. A pair of double doors at the end of the hall opened into what he assumed was the master bedroom. The room was dark, illuminated only by the fading sunlight creeping in through the blinds; House turned on the light, then froze, his hand still on the switch.
The woman in the bed looked nothing like the one who'd been in the clinic only a week ago. This woman was pale, wasted, and covered in filth. Her breathing was shallow, her eyes looked glassy, and her nightgown was stained with blood.
House was across the room in an instant, checking her vitals. For a horrible moment he thought she was dead; but then she coughed weakly, blinked, and tried to focus on him.
"You," she croaked. Blood-streaked saliva trickled out of the corner of her mouth.
House ignored her. "How long have you been like this?"
"Day or...." She winced. "Two...."
"And it didn't occur to you to maybe call an ambulance?"
"Husband," Shirley Knowles began, and then she turned her head to the side and vomited blood.
"My sentiments exactly," House muttered. He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and dialed 911.
After explaining the situation and impressing on the operator the need to get an ambulance out immediately if she had any intention of keeping her job, House tucked the phone away and eyed his patient critically. She was going into shock, probably from blood loss. There wasn't much he could do until the ambulance arrived, but he could at least get her some water to wash the taste of blood away. He turned her head to the side first, so she wouldn't choke if she vomited again, then made his way to the connecting bathroom, filled up a paper cup with water. He was helping Shirley Knowles drink when he heard footsteps from the hallway, then an ominous click. And then:
"Put your hands up and turn around."
House closed his eyes briefly, then turned.
Alias-Smith-or-Knowles stood in the doorway, pointing a gun at him.
A metallic prick of fear at the back of his throat made House dizzy, but it didn't last long. The familiar rush of narcotics was spreading through his blood, overwhelming all his other emotions.
"Well," he said, "this has certainly been a bitch of a day."
The man was unmoved. "Step away from the bed and put the cane down."
House tightened his fingers around the handle of his cane and said, "I should warn you that I called the police. In fact--" He cocked his head, listening, and was rewarded by a far-off siren. "I do believe that's them right now."
"Wrong," the man said. "You called an ambulance."
House rolled his eyes. "Fine, yes, I called an ambulance, you found me out. It doesn't matter. Both police and ambulance make a marvelously loud noise that's sure to attract the attention of the neighbors. Both come equipped with large, strapping young men operating in an official capacity. Your clumsy attempts at subterfuge earlier obviously mean you don't want to attract undue attention. Shoot me, and, well-- the best-laid plans of idiots and half-wits, et cetera."
The man narrowed his eyes and raised the gun. His grip was steady. He was clearly comfortable holding the thing.
"I'm ready to make an exception," he said.
"Yeah," House said, staring at the gun. "I tend to bring that out in people."
"Put down the cane. Last warning."
The sirens were getting closer. House reluctantly leaned the cane against the wall, and felt ridiculously helpless once it was no longer in his hand. Ridiculous, because it wasn't like one cane more or less was going to have much effect in the face of a gun.
"Move towards me," the man said, and House took one painful, faltering step forward.
The man started to circle around him. "I'm taking her out of here."
"No," House said, "you're not."
"And you're gonna stop me?" He looked amused.
"This is my patient. Yes, I'm going to stop you."
The sound of the siren was now deafening. Red and white lights flashed through the blinds, and a moment later, brakes screeched to a halt and the front door banged open. "Hello?" a distant voice called.
"Upstairs!" House yelled back, not taking his eyes off the gun.
The man blinked. His grip on the gun faltered.
"Last chance," House said, with an unpleasant smile. "Shoot me and get the police involved, or leave now and keep up the charade. What's it gonna be?"
There was a long pause.
"This isn't over," the man said finally, and vanished back into the hallway.
House blinked. His pulse was racing. His hands trembled. He barely felt the pain in his leg.
What the hell was going on here?
When the paramedics burst into the room, he was back on familiar ground. They carried Shirley Knowles out the door and down the stairs, and he followed her into the back of the ambulance, into a world he knew like the back of his hand.
It took a great deal of argument, raised voices, and cane-brandishing to convince the ambulance driver to take Knowles to PPTH instead of the local hospital, but in the end House prevailed, as he knew he would. The fifty-mile journey back to Princeton took considerably less time than his earlier struggles with public transportation, but it was still fully dark by the time they pulled up in front of the ER.
House followed the paramedics and the stretcher through the doors, barking out orders as he went. "Get this woman stabilized, and then I want a full series of tests. Blood work, CT scans, full tox screen-- find out what the hell's wrong with her, and find it fast."
He ignored the grumbles and the eye-rolls. He was used to them by now.
His team, of course, was gone for the day; he'd half-expected to find them in the conference room as usual, but only out of habit. House threw his jacket on his desk, picked up the phone, and paged the three of them in quick succession-- speed-dials 2, 3, and 4. Then he sat down and watched TV until the phone rang.
House grabbed it and said, "Yeah."
"She's stable. She's in the ICU."
"Good." He hung up and stood.
The door to his office burst open, and Chase stood there, looking ridiculously rumpled and out of breath. "What's up?"
House eyed him critically. Then he smiled.
"Come in," he said, sitting down again, "and close the door."
Chase, bless the boy, looked equal parts suspicious and pleased. He eased the door shut and asked again, "What's going on? I got your page--"
"Which I deduced from the fact that you are, currently, standing here. Now shut up and listen, we don't have much time before the others arrive."
Suspicion was quickly winning out. "This isn't going to be an illegal thing, is it?"
"Of course not!" House exclaimed, sounding offended. "Certainly no more illegal than impersonating the CDC to a poor, distraught mother who only wants what's best for her son. Definitely no more criminal than your shoddy attempt at a Southern accent--"
"I could just go home," Chase said, jerking a thumb towards the door.
"Yeah," House said, "but you won't."
"I was in the middle of a date, you know."
"You! A date?" House stared at him, wide-eyed. "With a girl?"
Chase sighed. "What do you want?"
House leaned back in his chair, folding his arms behind his head. "There's a woman in the ER named Shirley Knowles. You guys are going to take a personal interest in her case. You, specifically, are going to make a copy of every single scan and test result that comes back from the lab, and keep the copies somewhere safe."
"Safe like where?"
"How the hell should I know? Keep 'em in your damn hope chest, for all I care. Just don't advertise it. Keep them safe."
Now Chase looked amused. "To be opened in the event of your death, I presume?"
"Not my death," House said. "Are you gonna do it, or should I ask one of your coworkers? Foreman's got balls. He seems the type to flout danger." He waggled his eyebrows.
"Not for you, he wouldn't." Chase was grinning, damn him.
But Chase would do it. Chase was still too much of a Good Boy not to, despite House's best efforts to the contrary. So House sent him down to the ER, where he could at least make himself useful, and when Cameron and Foreman arrived, he instructed them to follow Chase's lead and sent them down as well.
Then, finally, blissfully alone again, he rubbed a hand over his face and sighed.
Today was almost tomorrow now. He couldn't do anything more until the test results came back. The adrenaline high from earlier was long gone, and he felt like someone had taken a chainsaw to his leg.
House dry-swallowed a pill and reached for the phone.
The bus was still running. For that matter, he could've taken another taxi. It was either sadism or masochism that led him to dial Wilson's cell number-- speed dial, 1-- and in the end, it didn't really matter which.
The tox screen came back negative; the scans and the blood work would take longer. When Wilson arrived, House was poring over his medical texts, scribbling notes in the margins. Without looking up, he said, "It's probably bacterial, don't you think? Doesn't really narrow it down, but it's someplace to start."
"I should start her on antibiotics. The Cipro might have helped. Of course, I couldn't exactly ask--"
"House," Wilson said, "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"That's okay," House said. "I wasn't planning on listening to you anyway."
Wilson sighed. "Come on. It's late, you're tired--"
"It's not that late. I may be a crotchety old man, but I'm not exactly ready for a bunk in the nursing home yet."
"You've had a long day."
"Ain't that the truth." House slammed the book shut and stood. "Remind me," he said, grabbing his jacket and shrugging it on, "antibiotics."
"I'll write you a Post-It," Wilson said.
They rode the elevator in silence for a while, and then House asked, "How was dinner," and Wilson said, "Short," and there wasn't really much else to say after that. They stopped by Chase in the ICU long enough for House to say, "Antibiotics," and not much else.
In the car, Wilson tapped his fingers and hummed along with the radio, and House surprised himself by drifting off with his head against the window. When the Mercedes slid to a smooth stop outside his house, he jerked upright and blinked himself awake, trying not to look like he'd been asleep.
"Come on in," he said, fumbling his way out of the car. "Have a drink."
"Great idea. I was feeling too sober to drive anyway." But Wilson followed, as House knew he would.
The mess that greeted them when the door opened was like some unfortunate kind of déjà vu. House stared at the upturned furniture, strewn papers, and scattered books, and said, "Damn Tooth Fairy. I knew I should've left out the good scotch."
Wilson's breath was an explosive puff of hot air on the back of his neck. "Why does this feel familiar?"
"Oh, come on. You've seen my attempts at housekeeping." But House realized with a sinking feeling that Wilson wasn't buying it, that Wilson had him cornered, and this time he'd have to come clean.
Indeed, Wilson pushed him none-too-gently towards the sofa, sweeping debris off the cushions with an outstretched arm, and said firmly, "Sit."
"Woof," House said, and sat.
Wilson stood with his arms crossed. "Spill."
"Well," House said, "there's this really cute boy in my English class, I passed him a note at lunch but I still don't know if he likes me--"
"Damn it!" Wilson slapped the wall, and House just barely managed not to flinch. "This is not a joke, and you are not an idiot. You know exactly what's going on, and you're going to tell me."
House raised his eyebrows. "Or what, you'll spank me?"
Wilson narrowed his eyes. "Or I'll tell Cuddy you have the hots for her."
"Ouch," House said, impressed.
"I learned from the best. Start talking."
"Get me a drink first."
"You know," Wilson said, pouring a generous shot of scotch, "you shouldn't be drinking at all."
House took the shot glass and raised an eyebrow at him over the rim. "Your point?"
He drained the glass in two long swallows, and then he told Wilson everything.
Wilson just stared at him. When he got to the first break-in, Wilson sat down next to him on the couch, still staring. When he got to the encounter in the Knowles' house, Wilson poured himself a shot and started drinking. And when he finished, Wilson licked his lips and then asked, "What did the police say?"
House reached for the bottle. "You know, I think I'll just pour another--"
Wilson's voice was sharp. "Please tell me you called the police."
"Of course I didn't!" House snapped, abandoning the pretense and lowering his arm. "This is my case."
"Greg," Wilson said, "you are a doctor."
"Oh, thank God somebody told me. I was beginning to think all those years of medical school were just one long mescaline-induced nightmare--"
"Doctor, Greg. Not detective, not secret agent--"
"Have I ever given you reason to doubt my self-awareness?"
"You don't want me to answer that."
House stared at him. "Well, I do now. What the hell are you implying?"
"That's not the issue," Wilson began.
"It is now!"
Wilson stood. "Call the police. Or I will."
"And tell them what?" House demanded. "That a woman's sick? Stop the presses."
"For God's sake, House, somebody pointed a gun at you!"
"Merely the first to succumb to a popular desire, I'm sure."
Wilson gave him a hard look. "I'm sure it's occurred to you that someone could be making her sick?"
House rolled his eyes. "Oh, please. Give me some credit. She tested negative for all known poisons. Yes, I checked. Surprise."
"Damn it, James, just drop it, would you? She's at the hospital now, she's safe, and I'm going to find out what's wrong with her. End of story."
Wilson stared down at him. "And that's it, is it? Your job begins and ends at the hospital, and everything else can go hang?"
"Of course not!" House burst out, and he stood too, with some difficulty. "We don't even know a crime's been committed--"
"Have you taken a good look around?"
"Okay, breaking and entering, but besides that! And--" House broke off abruptly.
"And?" Wilson demanded. "Come on, don't stop now, we all know you're never at a loss for words--"
"And it's my case," House said flatly. "Not the police, not the CDC. Mine."
Wilson just gaped at him.
"I knew you were an arrogant bastard," he said finally. "But this...."
He trailed off and shook his head.
"Look," House said, a little desperately, "at least wait until the tests come back. Give me that much time."
Wilson gave him a flat, unreadable look.
House gritted his teeth together. "Please."
Wilson walked over to the window and peered out. "Funny," he said, "I don't see any flying pigs."
"Ha fucking ha."
Wilson sighed. "You have till tomorrow morning. Then if you haven't called the police, I will."
"Excellent," House said, and pulled the original Knowles file out of his briefcase-- creased and grimy now, rather worse for the wear, and probably irrelevant by this point, but it never hurt to be too careful. "Hang onto this, would you? I'm pretty sure it's what they were looking for."
"I-- you--" Wilson snapped his mouth shut.
"Oh, come on," House said, and grinned. "I'll give it to Chase if you don't."
"You wouldn't," Wilson said.
"Watch me." No need to mention that Chase was holding onto the new file. James was stressed enough already.
"Of course you would," Wilson said with a sigh.
"You know, you really are the bestest friend--"
"Shut up," Wilson said, snatching the file out of his hand. "Please."
House smiled. "Well, when you ask so nicely."
Wilson had made halfhearted noises about House sleeping at his place, for safety's sake, but since he knew that House would rather chew his own leg off than spend the night in Julie's home, the impulse was short-lived. Then he started on about sleeping on House's sofa, and House very nearly had to whack him with his cane to make him go away.
Finally alone, he double-checked all the locks, feeling foolish as he did so. It obviously hadn't stopped them the first time. After a moment's deliberation, he dragged the piano bench in front of the door and then glared at it, as though daring it to comment.
House didn't think he'd be able to sleep; his brain was too busy, sifting through the possibilities, putting pieces together and then discarding them. But pain, drugs, and a too-long day made for a potent combination, and he hadn't lain in bed long before he was out like a light.
He thought he heard the telephone ring, once, while still in the murky depths of unconsciousness. But by the time he surfaced, the phone by the bed was silent, and the answering machine was all the way in the next room....
House shifted his leg slightly, downed another pill, and slept.
He managed to bully his car into starting the next morning, after fifteen minutes of swearing at it and kicking the tires. Things were looking up.
His good mood lasted exactly half an hour, at which time he walked into the conference room and was greeted by Foreman's and Cameron's guilty looks.
The news was not encouraging.
"What do you mean," House asked, in a low, dangerous voice, "she's gone?"
Cameron stared at the ground. Foreman met his glare squarely and retorted, "Now you're concerned? Last time you all but bit my head off for disturbing your beauty sleep."
God, sometimes House just wanted to throttle him.
"Last time," he growled instead, "was a sixteen-year-old boy with a noncommunicable brain disorder, not a dying woman vomiting blood. If you can't see the difference, I may have severely underestimated your capacity for intelligent thought."
Foreman glared back at him. "Yeah, but at least I've got street smarts, right?"
The door of the conference room opened before House could respond. He spun around and demanded of Chase, "Why didn't you call me?" From the corner of his eye, he saw Cameron glance up sharply, looking hurt. He ignored her.
Chase just looked exhausted. Even his hair was limp. He handed House a file and said simply, "I did. You didn't answer. I left a message."
House flipped open the file, and Chase added, "The CT scan showed some mesenteric adenopathy. Her white counts are elevated, and the blood culture came back. It's definitely bacterial."
House raised his eyebrows in question. Chase gave him a look that said clearly, Of course, and House murmured, "Good boy."
Chase wasn't done. "A definitive culture won't be ready for at least another day. Till then, I'd suggest broad spectrum antibiotics, but--" He shrugged.
"Yeah," House said. "Too bad the patient isn't here so we can treat her. That'd be keen."
Foreman's eyes were darting back and forth between them, like a spectator's at a tennis match. Finally, he demanded, "Why are you even on this case? It's a bacterial infection. The culture will tell us which one. It's boring."
House gave him a quick, dismissive look. "You're right. Let's not bother treating patients; let's just break for recess. I call dibs on the monkey bars."
Foreman looked annoyed, but said, "Exactly. The patient's diagnosed, and now she's gone. I can understand why anyone else would be worked up about it, but why are you still interested?"
"Because," House said, snapping the file shut, "the diagnosis isn't the mystery here."
"What does that even mean," Foreman muttered, but House wasn't paying attention. Wilson had appeared in the doorway, silent and implacable. House could feel the eyes on the back of his neck.
He sighed, cutting off Foreman in mid-grumble. "Cameron," he said, suddenly very tired, "call the police."
She gave him a strange look and said, "We already did. They're looking for Shirley now, and--"
"Call them again," House interrupted, and limped past her to his office.
He didn't bother shutting the door behind him. Sure enough, Wilson did it for him.
"Go ahead," House said, slumping into his chair. "Say it."
"I wasn't going to."
"Yes, well," Wilson said. "That's why you're the asshole and I'm the nice one."
House snorted. "How little they know."
Wilson ignored the dig. "You know you have to tell them everything."
"Yeah," House said after a moment. He wasn't sure whether Wilson meant his team or the police, but either way, it was true.
"You know they could charge you."
The police, then. "Wouldn't be the first time," House muttered.
"You could get fired--"
"Aren't you just a ray of fucking sunshine?"
Wilson was unruffled. "I want you to be prepared."
"And I want a pony," House snapped. "Doesn't mean I'm gonna tack horsehair to your ass."
"Well," Wilson said after a moment, "that was fairly random."
House sighed and dry-swallowed a Vicodin. "I'm not very good at playing defense."
"No," Wilson agreed, sitting down. "Being offensive is much more your forte."
"You'll come visit me prison?"
"I'll bake a portable TV into a cake."
"Excellent. I love it when a plan comes together."
"You were right about it being bacterial," Wilson offered, after a moment.
"Yeah," House said, and turned on the television. "Big consolation."
Then they sat in silence, and watched daytime soaps together until the police arrived.
Schaeffer and Lowell were not happy.
"So basically," Schaeffer said, "you're telling us that you covered up a possible crime for over a week, putting an innocent woman's life in danger?"
"Be fair," House said to his cane, as he slid it back and forth between his hands, studying the fine grain of the wood. "First of all, I didn't know it was a possible crime until the day before yesterday. Second, her life was already in danger. If anything, I added a few more days to what was already a seriously abbreviated life span. And third, if she were innocent, she wouldn't be dying in the first place."
Silence. House frowned and picked at a small flaw in the wood. Was that a splinter?
Finally, sounding strangled, Schaeffer inquired, "How exactly do you figure that?"
House looked up in surprise. "Well, obviously, if someone's making her sick, there's a reason for it. Someone wants her to die from what looks like natural causes, and they wouldn't go to that kind of trouble if it weren't more dangerous to keep her alive. Put it together with her fear and her attempt to hide her clinic visit, and it's kind of blisteringly obvious that she knew something she shouldn't."
Schaeffer and Lowell exchanged a look. Schaeffer looked grim. Lowell looked like he was either about to lose his shit, or... well, lose his shit in a different, less fun way.
"Face it," House said smugly. "She's as guilty of withholding evidence as I am. If you're gonna arrest me, I demand you arrest her first."
Wilson rested a warning hand between House's shoulder blades. House twisted around in his seat and glared up at him. "Don't you have work to do?" he demanded.
"No," Wilson said, and made no move to leave. He'd stuck around, God only knew why, and was standing behind House's desk chair like a sentry. House figured he was either there for moral support, which he didn't need, or to make sure he didn't annoy the cops into arresting him anyway, which... okay, he actually might need that.
"Delinquent," House muttered. He turned back to the cops, who still stood between his desk and the door, as though blocking his means of escape. Like he'd get very far before they tackled him. "Look, is there anything else? He might not have anything to do-- it's not like the head of the entire oncology department has any actual duties to attend to-- but I do."
Wilson gave a small, disbelieving snort, which he quickly turned into a cough.
Schaeffer ignored him. She was flipping through a file. "Dr. House, you were recently charged with... battery against a patient at this hospital, is that right?"
House rolled his eyes. "Yes, once upon a time I unlawfully tried to save the life of a dying man. I'm clearly a desperate criminal out for blood."
"So you have a history of disregarding the law when it suits you?"
"I plead the fifth," House said. "And also remind you that those charges were dropped."
"Right," Schaeffer murmured. Lowell scribbled something in his notebook. House stared at him, and he fumbled nervously with his pen.
"So help me out here," Schaeffer continued. "Why, exactly, didn't you report this right away?"
House sighed. "Do we really need to get into my motives here? It was a judgment call, I made it, it went badly. Can we get to the part where I promise never to do it again?"
She pinned him with an icy glare. He was impressed despite himself; she'd clearly had a lot of practice with that particular expression. "I suggest you start taking this seriously, Dr. House. You're in serious trouble here."
"And me taking you seriously is going to get me out of trouble?" House drummed his fingers impatiently on his desk, ignoring Wilson's second warning hand, this time a light squeeze of his shoulder. "Look, I did my duty, I called you guys and confessed like a good boy. So whaddya say you go do your job, and I'll sit here and do mine?"
Schaeffer elbowed Lowell, and he snapped his notebook shut.
"Don't go anywhere," she said, and gave first Wilson, and then House a long, speculative look.
House waved his hand airily. "Well, I was gonna run a marathon later today, but okay, you talked me out of it."
The door closed behind them, and House leaned back in his chair and said, "You realize she thinks you're my boyfriend."
"Well, you always said I was a masochist," Wilson said, as he, too, made for the door.
"That's because I've known your wives. This could be the start of a beautiful relationship."
"Yes, it always turns me on when you insult my taste in women."
Ooh, touchy. House quickly sidestepped the subject. "Think I could use it to my advantage? They might not be so quick to charge me if I could cry unfair discrimination due to homophobia."
Wilson opened the door to the conference room and said over his shoulder, "I think if your defense rests entirely on the suggestion that we're having sex, you're better off fleeing the country."
In the next room, Cameron, Foreman, and Chase all turned as one to stare at them.
House blew Wilson a kiss and said loudly, "See you at home, honeybuns."
Wilson rolled his eyes and turned to leave.
"Remember, the red lace is my favorite!" House yelled after him.
His only response was an upraised middle finger.
Wilson was right about one thing. Well, actually, Wilson was right about several things, as he usually was, but House figured it was for the man's own good not to tell him as much. Kept him on his toes. Kept him humble
House approved of humility in other people. It was just one of those things, like marijuana and fancy suits, that never quite worked for him.
But Wilson was right about one thing in particular: House wasn't a detective, and more was the pity. If he were, he could investigate Shirley Knowles's husband, try to find out exactly what he did and what he could have possibly gotten involved with. As it was, House didn't even know the man's first name. All he really knew was that Mr. Knowles probably didn't wear polyester suits.
This was the kind of thing he'd usually tell his team to do, and be relatively confident that they'd come back with something useful. Foreman probably knew all sorts of ingenious criminal ways of getting the dirt on someone... well, okay, he probably didn't. But it was so much fun to watch him get all indignant when House suggested it.
Usually he'd tell his team to do it, so he wasn't quite sure why he didn't do so this time, except maybe some unexpected attack of embryonic conscience that kept his mouth shut every time he was tempted to open it. Taking professional risks was one thing, but he'd already had a gun pointed at him. Getting any of the kiddies involved in a potentially life-threatening situation would be inexpedient, to say the least. House liked his team. He didn't particularly look forward to replacing any one of them.
Unfortunately, said embryonic conscience left him without much else to do. The patient was gone, the blood culture was growing, and Chase was currently passed out on the table in the conference room, drooling into his hair, while Cameron mainlined coffee and Foreman, again, was nowhere to be seen.
With a sigh, House hauled a pile of reference books onto his desk and opened one to the first page to read. If he could beat the blood culture to a diagnosis, it might give him some ideas as to what was going on.
Also, it would just make him feel special.
In the end, it didn't take long at all.
It helped that he'd started with A.
"Oh, hell," was all he said at first, staring at the page; and then, "Of course.
House glanced at the conference room again, and of course it was empty now. Chase and Cameron had vanished, leaving only a half-full coffee mug and a puddle of drool. He sighed. This was why they couldn't have nice things. Hadn't their mothers ever taught them to pick up after themselves?
He reached for the phone, then reconsidered, glancing at the clock. Wilson would be just starting clinic duty now, and he felt like sharing his genius in person.
Of course, his "genius" in this particular case consisted of... well, reading a book. But that was already more than most doctors could claim. No, the real puzzle lay in figuring out what Shirley Knowles's disease actually meant. And he was starting to put the pieces together....
He ought to tell the police, he knew. But that could wait. Wilson came first.
House stood and grabbed his cane, and had just reached the glass door of his office when he finally noticed the man on the other side, frozen in the act of opening it.
He studied the man for the barest moment, taking in the expensive haircut, the well-cut suit, and the general air of dishevelment and desperation, and then opened the door and said, "Monsignor Knowles, I presume."
"You have to help her," Knowles said, pushing past him into the office.
House let the door fall shut and rested his forehead briefly against the glass. Then he turned around and said dryly, "Any suggestions as to how?"
Knowles was pacing back and forth, hands clasped behind his head in frustration. He tossed House a furious look but said nothing.
"I'm good at what I do," House said to fill the silence, as he limped back to his desk. "But even I haven't figured out a way to cure anthrax from a distance. Or were you relying on my hugely powerful brain waves to do the trick?"
Knowles stopped and stared at him. "So you know."
"It took me a while," House admitted as he sat down. "Which I'm not proud of. In my defense, there have been maybe eleven recorded cases of gastrointestinal anthrax in the world, none of those in the United States, so I can hardly be blamed for it not being the first thing to spring to mind."
"We were in--" Knowles began.
"Mexico, yes, I heard. But that's not where it happened, is it?" House smiled a little. "That's where it started, sure, but it's not where she got sick."
He dropped the smile and leaned back in his chair. "Someone had to put it in her food. And unless you've got a disgruntled cook with a germ lab in her basement, that leaves, well...." He spun his cane between his fingers, then pointed it like a teacher's pointer, or a magic wand. "You."
Silence. Knowles seemed frozen in place.
"It's not even supposed to work that way," House mused. "They've tried it, feeding the spores to lab monkeys, but the stubborn little buggers simply refused to get sick." He shrugged. "Maybe it's different for human lab rats. Or maybe your friends juiced up the formula, so to speak."
"My friends," Knowles echoed dumbly.
House raised his eyebrows. "Yeah. Your friends. You know, the ones you're financing to generate anthrax spores and sell them to the highest bidder?"
Knowles's hands started to shake. His voice was hoarse. "How-- how did you know?"
House gave him a pointed look and said, "For one thing, you just told me."
Knowles opened his mouth, then shut it again.
"For another," House said, "I'm extremely intelligent. Mind if I try my hand at the rest of it? Your wife said Mexico was a business trip, and it was. Just not the business she thought. Now I'm just taking a wild stab in the dark here, but I'm guessing you and your friends were meeting with a potential buyer, your wife saw something she shouldn't, and you decided to kill her. Am I getting warm?"
"You--" Knowles looked stunned.
"I watch Alias," House explained. "I know how these things work."
Knowles rubbed his hands furiously on his trousers, wrinkling the fine fabric. Desperately he said, "I didn't-- I never wanted to--"
"Right," House said. "You're in love. No wonder you're poisoning her."
"They said-- they were going to do it themselves, I thought if I gave her a chance to get help--"
"Hedging your bets," House said. "Very clever. I can see how you became such a rich, important man. Obviously not rich enough, though, or you wouldn't have gotten yourself into this mess." He narrowed his eyes. "Of course, the fact that you're here now suggests either a sudden attack of conscience, or you've just realized that the shit is precariously poised to hit the fan. Would you like to know my guess?"
"I've had quite enough of your guesses," Knowles snapped. "The police are involved now. It's over. If you come with me, if you treat her-- she doesn't have to die!"
House rolled his eyes. "Sorry. Fatal disease. You don't get takebacks."
Knowles went pale. "You can't-- you can't cure her?"
"I could try," House allowed after a moment. "At this late stage, if it hasn't gone septicemic or meningeal, she's got maybe a sixty percent chance of pulling through with antibiotics. Of course, any idiot could dose her. You don't need me for that."
"And if it has gone--" Knowles hesitated. "What you said?"
"Well," House said, "then the odds are significantly lower."
"I looked it up," Knowles said, and House rolled his eyes and muttered, "Of course you did." God bless the internet.
Knowles was still talking. "They said-- they-- an infectious disease specialist, they said. That's you, isn't it?"
"Oh, sure," House said. "Me and fifty other doctors at this hospital. So which is it, my good looks or my charming personality?"
"If something goes wrong," Knowles insisted, "you'll know what to do."
"Which is no guarantee that I will be able to do it," House retorted. "Pick a side, you moron. If you want your wife to live, bring her back to the hospital for treatment. Otherwise I'd invest in a good mourning suit."
"I can't!" Knowles yelled. His face was white, his eyes red. "I can't get her away from them! But I know where they're keeping her! I can take you there!"
"And what, I'll crawl through the air ducts to get to her, right?" House reached for the phone. "Sorry, not interested. The police, however, will be."
"No police," Knowles said.
"Yeah, I tried that. Didn't work so well." House started to punch in Schaeffer's number.
"No police," Knowles said again, and when House looked, he found himself staring down the barrel of a gun for the second time in as many days.
He willed himself not to react. Knowles was... was not not-Knowles, and there was a fun linguistic tangle if he'd ever heard one. Knowles's hands were shaking around the grip of the gun. He was sweating. He looked terrified.
None of which necessarily made House feel any safer.
"Never done that before, have you?" he asked quietly, still staring at the gun.
"Please," Knowles said. "She's my wife."
House slowly replaced the receiver.
"I assume you have a plan?" he asked after a moment of silence. "You know, some feasible way of getting me out of the building at gunpoint?" As he spoke, he fumbled in his pocket for his cell phone, the movement hidden by the desk. He couldn't punch in a phone number without looking, but he could hit redial-- the last outgoing number had been one of his team's pagers, though he'd be damned if he could remember which. It wasn't ideal, but it would have to do.
Knowles moistened his lips but said nothing. House sighed, glancing from the gun to the glass door, and Knowles caught the look, twisting around to hide the gun from view of the hallway.
Fabulous. House would be doing much better if he could actually hide his disdain for idiots. Too bad Knowles was one of those rare people who managed to pick up on it.
"Look," House said, "you're obviously not very good at this. Why don't we just say nice try and forget this ever happened?"
"Get up," Knowles said finally, his voice low and hoarse.
"Was that a no?" House stood with some difficulty. "Great, step one accomplished. What's step two?"
At which point Chase knocked lightly on the glass door before poking his head in the office. "What's up?"
Chase. Of course. House groaned inwardly. The only non-American on his staff, and he was the last number called.
Well, Chase made much of his misspent youth. Perhaps it had included bad American thrash metal bands as well as drugs and debauchery.
"I'll be gone for a few hours," he said. "Page Drs. Schaeffer and Lowell. Tell them to keep an eye on Scott Ian for me."
Chase looked blank. "Who?"
"The patient," House said, with as great significance as he dared. Knowles wasn't looking; he waggled his eyebrows meaningfully. "Scott Ian. Look it up."
But it was too late. Knowles had been glancing back and forth between them, brow furrowed; then the penny visibly dropped, and he yelled "Shut up!" and raised the gun, aiming at Chase.
Chase jumped about two feet. "Whoa, hey!" His hands shot up.
"Idiot," House muttered. He'd thrown the dice, gambled on John Knowles not knowing the lead guitarist of Anthrax. There was a reason he only gambled with patients' lives. He'd never really had much of a poker face.
Wide-eyed, Chase looked about twelve. His gaze darted between House and the gun. "Which one?"
"Both of you," House snapped. He glared at Knowles. "Look at him. He doesn't have the first clue what I'm talking about. He's British."
"Australian," Chase murmured.
"Do we need to have this conversation again?"
Knowles looked like shit. "I don't care," he said, his voice shaky. "You're both coming."
"Well, sure," House said. "You can't let him go now. Not after you've waved a gun in his face. Nice going, Slick."
"Dr. House," Chase said, in a remarkably steady voice, "what the hell is going on?"
House glanced at Knowles. "Whaddya say? Do we have time for the requisite expository scene, or are you kind of in a rush right now?"
"Come here," Knowles said to Chase, ignoring him. The gun was trained on Chase's chest, Chase's body mostly blocking it from view of the hallway. There wasn't a lot of traffic in this wing in the first place, and most people who passed by didn't bother glancing into House's office, having learned from bitter experience to avoid him at all costs. Which was usually the way he liked it.
Knowles's eyes were fixed on Chase too. As Chase started to move, House reached for his cell phone again, but Knowles barked at him, "Hands on your desk."
"Teacher," House murmured, "leave the kid alone."
"Shut up," Knowles snapped, and grabbed Chase. One hand went to the doctor's shoulder, the other shoved the gun under his white coat. Chase's hands were still in the air, and Knowles said, "For God's sake, put your hands down."
Chase lowered his hands and held them awkwardly at his side, visibly uncertain what to do with them. With the gun hidden, the two could almost pass as good friends. Extremely snuggly good friends.
"Beautiful," House said. "If I had a camera, I'd use that photo for my Christmas cards."
"Here's how it's going to work," Knowles said. "We're going to walk out of here, get whatever you need to treat my wife, and then go downstairs to the garage. If you try anything, if you talk to anyone, I shoot him."
Chase turned his head slowly and gave Knowles a faintly terrified look, obviously not trusting House to value his life enough to keep his mouth shut.
"I find your expression deeply insulting," House said, grabbing his jacket and his cane. "And also insanely amusing. So who's up for a field trip?"
Chase glanced at him, looking more terrified, not less, and House mouthed, Just go with it. He wouldn't have chosen to go along with Knowles if he didn't have to, but after all, the man just wanted them to cure his wife, not rob a bank. Or so House hoped.
Besides, with Chase along, maybe he wouldn't be the one crawling through the air ducts after all.
Part One | Part Two