I took a deep breath. My heart was pounding, my hands were shaking, and cold sweat dripped down my sides. Calmness was a distant stranger, a pleasant but ineffectual dream that I would never get back to. I fought the flight or fight reflex, but flight was starting to win. I didn’t want to be here. I wanted to set an example for the rest of the team, but my resolve was melting like Jell-O gelatin in a microwave. I knew what awaited me on the other side of the door. It was going to end in pain. Or would pain be only the beginning? My legs felt wobbly. My stomach churned. I put one hand on the knob, not because I wanted to open the door but just to stop myself from falling over. I checked my watch, but the time didn’t register in my panic-fevered brain. Maybe I was too early. Maybe he wasn’t ready yet. I could come back later. This didn’t really have to happen right now. A short while ago I was relaxing, enjoying some ice water with a squirt of lemon juice and now I was here, wishing for a trap door to open beneath me and save me from a fate worse than death. I even looked down at the floor, but no such trap door appeared. I couldn’t will it any more than I could will my feet to step forward.
Suddenly the door swung inward and I stumbled into the room. “Come in, Helena,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
I stepped inside, and he closed the door behind me. He didn’t lock it, but I knew my quick escape was impossible. “You don’t have to do this,” I said, feeling my knees begin to buckle.
“Have a seat on the table, please, and remove your shirt.” There was an array of equipment in the room, arranged in a gauntlet of physical trials. First there was a padded table covered with a strip of crinkly paper. At the foot was a single rubberized step. The table was surrounded by a tubular metal framework on which hung an opaque white curtain, which for now was pushed to one side. Near the table was a portable mammography machine with a lead apron hooked on one side, and a wheeled table covered with a white cloth. Slowly, carefully, I put one foot up on the step and boosted myself up onto the table, sitting with my feet dangling over the edge and feeling like a six year old in the principal’s office for the first time. I slipped off my t-shirt and sat there in my sport bra.
My name is Helena Montana and I work for CURDS, a somewhat militarized branch of the CDC created about ten years ago to deal with a highly dangerous, very addictive form of cheese that had infiltrated our global economy. The cheese was made with an ingredient known as Uber rennet, which, over not much time, caused severe constipation and shut down intestinal peristalsis resulting in a rupture into the abdominal cavity, peritonitis, and then death. In the meantime, it was as addictive as heroin. If you were eating it, you didn’t really care about the effects. You just wanted more. My job involved trying to track down sources of Uber and destroy it, as coordinator for the Cheese and Uber Rennet Disposal Service, Team A. I coordinated a team of eight, under Director Chiff, who led my team and two others in a worldwide effort to contain Uber. I’m trained in hand-to-hand combat, licensed to carry firearms and I’ve dealt with thugs and dealers and lowlifes for about eight years now. But what I was about to be subjected to was more terrifying.
As coordinator, it was my responsibility to go first, to set an example, to forge the way forward and put my team at ease. But inside I didn’t want to be there, I would have given my first born to be in a dentist’s chair instead, and I’d done this seven times before. But each time was different and I knew it. It was time for our team’s annual physicals, and aside from the obvious they liked to test reflexes and how well you are prepared to face the unknown and unexpected. I’m a very healthy person, but that didn’t matter. I’ve seen plenty of very healthy people get sick and worse in the blink of an eye, most notably my own father who was one of the earliest victims of OOPS, or Offensive Obstruction Pandemic Sweep, the epidemic caused by the infiltration of Uber. Normally, I didn’t really think about my health. I had too many other things to think about. But when the physicals rolled around, I channeled my inner hypochondriac. I’m also the oldest member of the team, so on top of fearing a change in my physical health, I worried about the other benchmarks. Was this the year I would start to slip?
These physicals were scheduled, and then the schedules were scheduled. It wasn’t like they were going to be interrupted. I wasn’t going to get saved by the bell, or by a phone call from Director Chiff, and be able to put it off indefinitely while we saved the world. This was going to happen now. We couldn’t be cleared for another mission until all of us had passed muster. That was one of the reasons we have three teams, A, B, and C. There was still someone to send on a mission while one was getting checked out. It made me very nervous. It was like being stuck in that extended moment between giving an answer to a really tough question on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and when Regis would actually say you were right or wrong. They always left it hanging for an eternity, and that was just for the people watching. I can’t imagine how many eons it felt like to the contestant.
“How have you been feeling?” Nitro asked, his clipboard in hand and a pen at the ready. Nitro is our doctor / biochemist / vegetarian. He was wearing his white lab coat, which he only wore for the physicals. Most of the time he wore jeans and polo shirts. Two more retractable pens were in the breast pocket. A stethoscope hung from his neck.
“Fine,” I said.
“I think I need more than that.”
“And dandy?” He looked annoyed. He was just getting started. He had to do this seven more times. Well, six, actually. Our team employed a set of conjoined twins. More about them later. “Okay. Let’s see. I’m sleeping okay. I have a good appetite. I have neither diarrhea nor constipation. I’m not experiencing any pain or burning when I urinate. My cycle is regular and I have no sex life at the moment.” In some ways, this opening interview worried me the most. This was where he asked loaded questions and used your answers to determine mental fitness. I’m normally pretty confident, out in the field or conducting business with my team members, but when I’m being judged there seems to be some lingering doubt, a reasonable certainty that this year my true self would be discovered and found wanting. That I would be sent away to a nice government asylum where my meals would consist of little blue pills and applesauce, and the highlight of each day would be taking command of the TV in the common room so I wouldn’t have to watch reruns of Fantasy Island.
Nitro lifted the linen off the wheeled table to reveal a collection of common medical instruments and a medicine cup filled with a milky liquid. He handed me the cup. “Drink this, Helena.”
“What is it?”
“Tell you later.”
“I’m not drinking it until you tell me what it’s for.” I can be very stubborn, even when I’m terrified. “It’s not an emetic, is it?” The last thing I wanted to do was throw up all over Nitro, even though I kind of wanted to throw up all over Nitro. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t even bother him. He’d just clean it up, disinfect, and go on with the exam without so much as an ‘ew’ or even the slightest gag. What bothered Nitro more was a heaping plate of pulled pork or a steaming hot dog on a bun.
“It’s something to . . . relax you. Take care of the white coat syndrome.” he said as he pulled on a pair of latex gloves and set about preparing my free arm for a blood draw by tying flexible tubing around my left upper arm.
“You could try not wearing the white coat,” I suggested.
“How would we know which of us is the doctor?” He gave me an exaggerated grin that basically said ‘shut up and drink it.’ I noted his hesitation and looked at him suspiciously, but that was all he was going to say. I drank it. It tasted a bit chalky, leading me to believe it was probably an antacid to calm a nervous stomach. He may have had too much experience with stress vomiting or something, so I couldn’t blame him. He took the empty cup and put it back on the table and picked up a syringe. After the blood draw, he marked the vial he had produced, then copied the ID number onto his clipboard. He removed the tubing, and reached for some more prepared syringes. “Scheduled inoculations,” he explained. “And whatnot.”
“What’s the whatnot?”
“More inoculations. We travel a lot, you know.”
He set the clipboard and pen on the table behind me. I heard the paper crinkle. Then he began to feel me up. Well, he was checking my lymph nodes and such and apparently the degree to which I was ticklish. He put the earpieces of his stethoscope into his ears and listened to my heart and lungs from the front and then the back, instructing me to breathe deeply from time to time. From another pocket, he extracted an otoscope and peered into each of my ears, replaced that with an ophthalmoscope and looked into my eyes, shining the nice extra bright light until I could see phantom images and not much else. He stopped to mark down some things on the clipboard, and moved on to the blood pressure cuff, pumping the armband up to tourniquet mode. I tried to consciously relax, closing my eyes to watch the bright light residue play on my eyelids for a while. Then Nitro took my temperature and marked that on the clipboard, too.
He pulled the curtain around the entire area. It didn’t matter that we were the only ones in the room. Nitro knew that it was somehow more comforting to do certain parts of an exam in an enclosed space. I won’t tell you the details about what happened inside the curtain. If you’re a woman you already know and if you’re a man you don’t need to know, and if you’re a med student there are much better places to learn about it. Be assured that I was submitted to a battery of highly sensitive, intrusive, and unnerving female related tests and procedures, including the mammogram. For my part, I stared at the ceiling through most of it, noticing a moisture stain that looked like JFK’s famous silhouette. I used to be a history teacher. I can see historical figures in a mud puddle. But I’ve never seen the face of Jesus Christ in anything. My mother said she once saw Jesus in a scoop of potato salad, but was too nervous to take a clear picture. It was just like Nitro to get this embarrassing stuff out of the way early. It seemed to relax people a bit. I was finally given permission to dress and he stepped out to prepare the next station. When I was ready, I pushed the curtain all the way open and moved on.
The next station was easy. I stepped onto a physician’s scale and Nitro played with the little weights on the abacus like tool until he was satisfied. “Up a couple pounds, Helena. Nothing to worry about,” he said. Then he stood me up next to graduated markings on the wall so he could measure my height. He marked it down, and flipped to another page on his clipboard and back again. “Hmmmm.”
“You appear to have lost a quarter of an inch. Also nothing to worry about. It’s common as –“
“Don’t say it.”
“—you get older,” he finished against my express wishes.
“Are you sure?” I’m only five foot two to begin with, or was. I wasn’t ready to give up even a quarter of an inch. And I didn’t really consider mid-forties to be ‘getting older’ per se. I went back against the wall, squishing myself up tight against it and inhaling as if that would make me taller. “Check again.” He humored me, but he wouldn’t lie. He confirmed his original finding.
“I suggest some calcium supplements. And focus more on weight bearing exercise. You know, more jogging, less climbing.”
“Sure, Nitro. I can do that.” I didn’t let it show, but I felt grumpy. I’d let myself grump about it properly later, in private.
Next, he tested my grip strength in both hands and lung capacity, doing each test three times to get an average. We moved to the far side of the room where there was a small soundproof booth. “Okay, time to test your hearing,” he said, opening the door. Inside there was a seat, a set of headphones and a handheld button at the end of a long cord.
“What?” I asked, holding a hand to my ear.
“Yeah, that gets funnier every year, especially with seven more people to say it,” he responded unenthusiastically. “Get in the booth.”
After that I read an eye chart twice while covering alternating eyes. I have no idea if I did well. CURDS doesn’t publish their benchmarks, so not even Nitro really knows what is good or bad. He sends his results in to Washington and we find out the next day if anyone failed. This way, Nitro could even do his own tests and still send in the results. Sure, he knew medically what things should be, but you never knew which areas CURDS would consider important in a particular year. Like I said, they try to test your response to the unknown and unexpected and letting people figure out what to expect kind of defeated the purpose.
After all those came my least favorite part of the exam, a test that has never been omitted the entire eight years I’ve been getting physicals through CURDS. I’d literally prefer to go back behind the curtain than get on that treadmill. Yep, stress test. Nitro hooked up sensors to various inconvenient body parts, and told me to get on the treadmill. He turned it on, slowly at first, at a flat level, but I knew that was going to change. I jogged easily for a time while Nitro went about the room cleaning up the previous stations. After a few minutes he came back and adjusted the speed up or the incline up or sometimes both, then disappeared again. I could hear him moving things around elsewhere in the room but couldn’t turn my head to look without dislodging wires or possibly losing my balance. I’d been running a solid fifteen minutes by the time I was at sprint speed with an incline of about twenty degrees. I was panting and sweating, my hair had gone limp and was getting in my eyes, and I could feel my pulse in my hair follicles. “C’mon, Nitro, isn’t this enough?” I gasped when he came over to raise the incline another two degrees.
“Nope, not yet.”
“But I’m stressed. I swear to God, I’m stressed.”
“Helena, I know you. You were stressed at the opening interview. Keep running.” And he disappeared from my view again. After an eon or three he finally came back and began reducing the incline and speed allowing me to cool down before stopping completely. He removed the sensors and helped me off the treadmill. My legs felt like rubber. And not that thick sturdy rubber they make tires out of, but more like a nice flimsy rubber band that will break if you look at it. I was bathed in sweat, my breath catching in my throat as if I couldn’t suck in oxygen fast enough.
“I think I’m hyperventilating,” I gasped.
“You’re not hyperventilating,” Nitro said, throwing me a cool, moist towel and a bottle of water and pushing a chair my way. I sat down and rested for several minutes, sipping the water. I thought the worst was over. I was wrong.
After I was cooled down, during which Nitro circled the room double checking and rearranging the equipment at the various stages, he approached carrying a small circular tray. On the tray stood two cups, one clear, one opaque, with twist-on caps, and a pair of latex gloves. In the next corner of the room was a small alcove with a toilet and sink. The opening was crossed by a metal bar holding up a plastic curtain. “Two cups?” I asked.
“New request from the top. One each.” He saw the look on my face and gave me an apologetic one in return. “Do the best you can.”
“I don’t think I –“ I started to say. That’s when I finally figured out what the chalky, milky liquid had been that Nitro had given me earlier. I grabbed the tray and went into the alcove. I barely got the gloves on in time. As instructed, I did the best I could, then peeled off the gloves so they were inside out (I think that’s the only way you CAN take off latex gloves) and left them on the tray with the two somewhat suspect sealed cups. I went to the sink and washed my hands liberally with the antibacterial soap, then brought Nitro the samples. He pulled out his pen and marked the top of each container and set it aside. I felt better. It had to be over now. All that was left was picking the next victim out of the bedpan by the door and I was free for another year.
I headed for the door. As I reached for the bedpan holding the names of the rest of the team, the lights suddenly went out and I was in complete darkness. “Nitro?” I called. There was no answer, but in the next instant there was blinding white light, which then flashed off to be replaced by blue light, and red light and yellow, on and on randomly through the spectrum strobing like a disco ball. It lasted for at least a full minute, then went to full dark again before gradually returning to normal lighting. I stood in place the entire time, afraid to move for fear I would bump into something.
“No epilepsy,” Nitro noted out loud as he presumably wrote the same thing on the clipboard.
“Did you think I had epilepsy?”
“No. Just a random test I picked out. I’m allowed a couple of electives every year. And I won’t necessarily do it on everyone. I’d like to test Sylvia, though, because of her eye injury.”
“You know about that?” I was surprised. Sylvia is our strategic analyst. She joined about seven months ago, wearing an eye patch. It turned out to be a ruse to test our observational skills and our team communication, set up by Director Chiff. At convenient times, she would switch the eye patch to the opposite side to see if anyone was paying attention. Unfortunately, on a mission in Paris she suffered an eye injury when a cleaning solution was splashed in her face, and the exposed eye, her left, had been ruined. A serious tragedy since she had the most startling pair of emerald green eyes I’d ever seen. I thought I was the only one who knew about the incident. She had sworn me to secrecy in the hospital, though the statute of limitations was due to end when it came time for her physical.
“Well,” Nitro admitted slyly, “until now I only suspected. She stopped moving the eye patch about a month ago, I think. We were, where? Either Paris or London, I think. You want to tell me about it?”
“Sorry, Nitro. I’m sworn to secrecy. But that was going to end very soon. Today, in fact. Would you care to take a break and come into the living room? I think it’s time for a team meeting.”
He picked up the bedpan and held it out. “Pick the next patient and give me 5 minutes.” Appropriately, I picked Sylvia.
It was ten minutes before Nitro joined us in the living room of the group home we called HQ. The medical lab that housed all that equipment was a detached garage in the northeast corner of our lot. He had left his white coat and stethoscope in the lab, appearing as plain, ordinary Nitro, five and a half feet of pale, twitchy, ambiguous maleness. He sat in the open space on one of the three couches in the room, while I had planted myself in the wheeled office chair stolen from the writing desk. Wheeled chairs give one authority, and when you’re five foot two, or five foot one and three quarters, anything that can give you authority is a good thing. Sylvia, Roxy, and Badger were sitting on one couch, and Billings and the Nicely twins were on the second couch, leaving Sir Haughty to share the third couch with Nitro. I could have fit on the third couch easily, but I needed to separate myself from the team. I was going to be addressing them as their coordinator, not as one of the gang. “You’re probably all wondering why I called you here today,” I started, because I’d always wanted to say that.
I watched my team trade glances among themselves. “You didn’t call us here,” said Billings. As my son, he showed very little reluctance to contradict me. “It’s physicals. We were already required to be here. All you did was tell everyone to stay put.”
“Never mind. We have something to discuss and I need everyone here.”
“What is it, Helena?” Roxy asked. “Is it something official? Should I be recording this?” Roxy is our legal advisor, but she’s also darn good in the field, despite her habit of wearing evening gowns and high heels. Today she was pretty casual, wearing a knee length bright yellow dress and matching stilettos, with her bright red hair cascading down her back. Her long legs were crossed at the ankles and tilted to the right.
“Should I be taking minutes?” asked Badger, our communications guy. He spoke several languages and often acted as translator. He was also lightning fast on his smart phone when research needed to be done. You never knew what little tidbit of trivia he would come up with or find quickly on his phone.
Sylvia, who I’m sure suspected she was at least part of the issues, said nothing.
“No. This doesn’t have to be on the record.” I noticed Sylvia relax a little. The rest sat up straight, curious. Little did they know.
“We’ve been a team now for several months,” I began. “Some of us, for years. I’ve gotten to know you all pretty well, and I’m proud of the fact that such a disparate group works together in tight, often tense situations. We’ve never had a major bust up, none of you have been arrested, and injuries have been minimal.” I think Sylvia expected me to segue into her adventure in Paris, but I had a bigger point to make first. “But there is something going on that I feel should be . . . adjusted a bit. I’ll be blunt. The big issue here is secrets. I’m flattered that you all feel comfortable enough to confide in me, but I think it’s also important, as a team, to be able to confide in each other. I can’t force anyone to make a confession here. If you guys want to keep going the way we are, I’m okay with that. I just think we need a clear opportunity to establish some meaningful communication. We have each other’s backs in the field, which is great, but we should have each other’s backs here, too.
“I’ll get the ball rolling and offer up myself. What do you guys want to know about me? Ask me anything. I’ll answer truthfully and I won’t hedge. Anyone?”
As expected, there was silence for a bit as everyone looked at each other. All except for Sylvia, who didn’t look at anyone. They seemed to be waiting for me to dismiss them. There was the sound of the leatherette cushions squeaking as people nervously shifted position. They probably all felt like guilty children being grilled by their parents, similar to how I felt sitting on Nitro’s exam table. I noticed Billings, holding hands with Avis. I couldn’t tell if he was holding her hand or she was holding his, but no one else was even touching thighs. This was no good. I remembered better camaraderie in the past. When had that stopped? When and why had they become separate people sharing a house rather than an off duty team? At least they didn’t fight. They got along fine, but they didn’t really get along. It was all superficial. Hello, how are you, have a nice day, exchanging curt nods like strangers passing on a deserted street as if to say ‘I see you. I know you’re there. Don’t try anything funny.’ The more I observed them, the more I knew I had to do something. “No one is at all curious about any aspect of my life? C’mon people. Talk to me. Anyone want to share something? We’re all friends here. No fear.”
Billings stood up, his hand separating from Avis and dropping to his side. “Mom?”
“Yes, Billings.” I gave him my full attention, thankful for some feedback.
“I’d like to . . . ,” he hesitated, then stood up straighter, breathing in confidence, and said, “Why did you really divorce Dad? Was it just the Uber thing or was he . . . you know, unfaithful?”
“You mean did he have an affair? No, not that I’m aware of.” That part was easy. “But it wasn’t just the Uber thing.” Billings was ten when his grandfather, my Dad, had died in the OOPS. It was before they knew what it was. It was just an intestinal blockage at the time. And no one really knew what caused it. It hit the world so quickly and so viciously that it was months before science got a handle on it. But when Dad was in the hospital, my husband at the time, Butte, had made the whole thing seem like an imposition on his precious time. “It was the last in a long line of straws,” I said. “It’s cliché, but we just grew apart. I’ll always have feelings for him, Billings. I want you to know that.” For several moments, the rest of the room disappeared and I saw only Billings. “We did have twelve beautiful years before the divorce, you know. But after Uber came into the picture, it just wasn’t clear anymore how he felt about me. He gave my father the cheese that killed him and never even bothered to apologize for it.”
“Dad gave Grandpa the cheese?” Billings was shocked. “You never told me that.”
I could see his disdain for his father growing. “He didn’t know it was Uber, Billings. No one did. It was a mistake. I can forgive him for that. I do forgive him for that. But I could never forgive him for not admitting it later on, after Uber was identified, for not showing the least bit of remorse.” My mind was thrust back a decade all at once and I started to choke. I swallowed it. “You can probably figure out why I never told you the details.”
Billings sank back into his seat and Avis grabbed his hand back. He accepted it without any apparent thought. “Yes, I suppose so,” he said, his mind a fair distance away from the present. “I have enough baggage about Dad. And I guess that would have turned my carry-on into a steamer trunk. Wow.”
Agnes, Avis’ conjoined twin, reached across her sister’s body to also clasp Billings’ hand. She nodded at him, as if urging him on. “Go ahead. Tell them.”
His eyes cleared. “Are you sure?” he asked the twins. They both nodded.
Without standing up this time, he said, “I don’t know if it’s as much of a secret as I thought it was, but I guess all of you should know. Avis and I are . . . “ he searched for the right word, finally settling on something close, “dating.”
Before I could respond, Nitro spoke up. “You and Avis?” He asked. “What about Agnes?” The twins were joined at the waist, identical in every way, each with her own set of arms and legs. It was hard to conceive of Billings dating one without the other.
“I’m okay with it,” Agnes responded. “Really. We’ve dealt with this kind of thing before, you know. It goes with the territory of being conjoined.”
“Have you ever considered being separated?” Nitro asked. As a physician and surgeon, he was naturally curious about this. It probably came up every year at their physicals, but this was the first time the subject was broached in front of us.
“Our parents had no insurance when we were born,” contributed Avis. “They couldn’t afford to pay for it. And by the time they could, we were old enough to object.”
Agnes continued, “No. We have no interest in it. We love being unique. It’s a pity everyone doesn’t have a twin connected to them.”
Nitro persisted. “But wouldn’t you two rather be alone?” he asked, motioning to include Billings and Avis together.
I was glad these questions were getting asked, but I started to wonder if this particular topic was going to go too far. What next? Was he going to ask what positions they would use? “Nitro, I think they can work that out between themselves. Agnes, Avis, I think your parents did a great job raising you. Be sure and tell me if Billings is ever . . . less than a gentleman.”
“Yes, Ma’am what?” This came from Knobby, the caretaker, who had just come up from the basement after preparing the furnace for the coming winter. He took care of our building and the two others for the other two teams which headquartered nearby. He didn’t go into the field due to an injury during training in which he shattered both of his kneecaps.
I considered him a member of the team anyway, though I wasn’t sure the rest of the team agreed with me. “Any objections to Knobby joining us?” I asked just to be fair.
“What am I joining?”
“Confessions,” replied Billings. “I just told the group that Avis and I are dating and they are busy trying to figure out the logistics.”
“Oooo,” said Knobby. There had been no objections, and Billings had more or less confirmed it. There was no seating available, so we waited while Knobby got a straight chair from the kitchen. He spun it around and straddled it, crossing his arms across the back. This position was easier on his knees since he could place his feet a little back and support his weight on his arms. “Wish I had something to confess, but ya’ll know about my kneecaps. Oh, hey, want to see them?” Without waiting for a reply, he started rolling up his pant legs. He wore very loose, wide legged pants to avoid pressure on his knee joints. They easily rolled up above his knees.
Nitro leaned over to get a closer look at the knee closest to him, Knobby’s right. Because he didn’t pull field duty, Knobby was exempt from our annual physical requirement so Nitro had not had a chance to examine him. “Interesting,” he said, watching Knobby flex the joint for the crowd to reveal the clear impression of the ball and socket joint under the skin. A network of pale lines showed where doctors had opened the knee to remove the shattered caps. “Do you have pain?”
“Not anymore. Hurt like hell at first, of course, but most of the nerves got damaged, too. Now both knees are mostly numb. But they dislocate pretty easy, which is why I can’t go running around like you folks. Kind of amazing, though, the human kneecap. Sounds simple, don’t it? Just a hunk of bone, really, but medical science hasn’t been able to make an artificial one. When folks get a knee replacement, it’s the joint here,” and he pointed to his knee, “that’s getting replaced, under the cap, not the cap itself. Goes to show, you don’t appreciate something until you don’t got it no more.” He rolled his pant legs back down. “When you run and jump and crawl and whatnot, thank your kneecaps.”
“Thank you, Knobby,” I said.
“I’m inspired,” said Sir Haughty. “I’ll go next. I’m not actually a knight.” Now, the rest of us already knew this. His friend in England, who went by the name of Sticky, had told us the truth on a recent mission while Sir Haughty was away from the group. For the past month or so, he had no idea that we knew. In fact, we didn’t even know that Sir Haughty knew, since his friend was under the impression that Sir Haughty was convinced he had been knighted.
I played along. “Sir Haughty, what are you saying?”
“I was never really knighted. Sticky pretended to be the Queen during an evening of mutual, shall we say, excessive inebriation, of which I am deeply ashamed, and pronounced me a knight. He called me ‘Sir’ after that, and I liked it, so I let it continue. It restored the dignity I’d lost that night. The dignity I’d shredded that night. I apologize for the deception. As a compromise, I insisted on Sir Haughty rather than the usual Sir Francis, just in case we ever meet the Queen. I’m sure she would recognize instantly that she had never knighted me.”
“This is America,” said Roxy. “You can call yourself anything you want.” Roxy should know. She’s our legal counsel. If there’d been any problem with Sir Haughty using the honorific amongst ourselves, she would have said so.
“I suppose I’m safe as long as I don’t visit Buckingham Palace.”
“Exactly,” Roxy confirmed.
“I’m gay,” said Badger out of the blue.