The little things in life are often the most important to us, and yet they are so easily overlooked. At a moment's notice they can slip away and get lost in the flow of daily activity. Slip, like a bracelet from the wrist of a distracted girl.
The girl had a million different things pressing in on her mind as she walked down the dark road, leaving the bracelet behind in a puddle of mud. It had not been raining when she left the house. Perhaps if it was she would not have gone. Then again, maybe not. Despite the cold and miserable weather, she would rather be out here on her own than back at that house with him.
Her mother insisted that she call him "father," but she could think of a few other names that fit better. It had been a huge blow to see mother remarry so soon after her real father's death. Where he had been easygoing and fun, this man was the biggest control freak she had ever met. They had already battled for more than a year over the typical teenage concerns- boyfriends, curfews, grades. Her stubborn resistance met his authoritarian demands every step of the way.
The wind picked up. She hunched over under the added weight of a wet backpack, cursing herself for not thinking to bring an umbrella. Pride would not allow her to go back for it. They might be waiting for her there, waiting with stern lectures and looks of disapproval. She knew they hadn't taken her seriously when she said she would be gone by the time they returned from their night out. She could only hope that she would reach the bus stop and be far away by then. She hadn't yet decided where she was going. Anywhere seemed better than here.
Exhausted, she began to wonder if she had miscalculated the distance to the bus stop. She held up her arm, glancing at the neon green glow of the screen of her waterproof watch. Only then did the absence of the bracelet catch her attention.
"Oh no, oh crap," she growled as she turned into the wind to retrace her steps.
It was impossible. Everywhere she looked there was water and mud. The streetlights were far too weak to reveal such a tiny thing. Overwhelmed by this new frustration, she slumped against a lamppost and gave herself over to tears. What would they think if they could see her now? Perhaps mother would comfort her, but not him. No, he would be glad. She could just imagine his condescending voice, mocking her loss as only he was cruel enough to do.
Well, that's what you get for being a little runaway. I say it's a sign that you should forget that boy and concentrate your efforts on your studies.
She still hated her mother for telling him that the bracelet had come from Trent. He made her throw it away, but she went back for it. She'd never trust mother with another secret.
The girl was so lost in thought that she didn't hear the car until it had already pulled to a stop in front of her. The front window rolled down and a man with a concerned expression peered out.
"Oh, I am so sorry, Miss! Didn't mean to startle you there. Whatever are you doing out here, alone in the rain?"
She wasn't sure if she wanted to say anything to this stranger, so she held her tongue and tried to regain her composure. It is not easy to look relaxed and in control when you are soaked to the bone. A high-pitched yapping sound started up from the back seat of the car. The man turned away to look over his shoulder.
"Do be quiet, Daniel. Don't you know it is not polite to bark at a lady? There, that's a good boy."
He turned back to face her and flashed a friendly smile.
"He really is a good dog, he just forgets his manners sometimes. Anyway, I hope I am not intruding. You just looked like you could use some help there. Is anything wrong?"
She gave this question serious consideration. With a smile of her own, she shook her head and replied casually.
"No, no, I'm fine. I was just… looking for something. Something I dropped in the mud. Doesn't really matter I guess. I'll never find it anyway."
The man nodded in understanding, his tone warm and sympathetic.
"Oh, so sorry to hear that. I do hate it when that happens. Well, if there is anything I could help you with just let me know. Are you going somewhere?"
The thought of escaping the rain was too tempting to resist.
"Just the bus stop. Could you, uh, could you drop me off?"
The man's smile grew wider.
"Oh yes, certainly. Just hop in the back. Don't worry about the seats, I don't mind if you get them wet. And don't mind Daniel either, he doesn't bite."
She opened the door and chucked in her soaked backpack. A yellow-coated dog which resembled an overly large Chihuahua ducked out of the way. She watched it as she buckled herself in, relieved that she had not accidentally smashed it in her carelessness. The man watched her from the rear view mirror as he put the car back into drive.
"I seem to have forgotten introductions. I am Dr. Fredrick Jameson, and that of course is Daniel."
The girl reached out her hand to let the dog sniff. It wagged its tail enthusiastically. She grinned and started scratching it behind the ears.
"Katie Coburn. Thanks for giving me a ride. You're a real lifesaver."
The doctor chuckled.
"Anything to help a young lady in need. Aww, I see Daniel likes you."
The dog had climbed into her lap, and she continued to pet it as she thought about her change in fortune. Perhaps things wouldn't work out so badly after all. She certainly hadn't expected anyone this nice to come along and help out. He reminded her of her biology teacher, Mr. Ross. He had the same kind of messy hairstyle, though his hair was a bit darker than the doctor's rich honey blond.
Katie wondered if she would ever see Mr. Ross again. No going home meant no going back to school, right? She still didn't know just how far she wanted to go. Her hand ran idly over the coarse fur on the dog's back as she stared out the window, lost in thought again.
The bus stop passed by so quickly that she almost didn't register it. The warmth and smooth motion of the car had nearly lulled her to sleep, but she snapped out of it quickly. She leaned forward, spilling the dog out of her lap onto the floor.
"Hey mister, you just passed it!"
The doctor continued to look straight ahead.
"Are you sure, Katie? I didn't see anything."
She sat back down. The dog jumped up into the seat beside her.
"Yeah, it was right back there. We just passed it. It's OK, you can let me out here. Thanks for everything."
The doctor shook his head.
"Are you absolutely sure? I don't believe we have reached it yet."
Now Katie was starting to get irritated. She crossed her arms and scowled.
"Uh huh. I saw it, clear as daylight. No doubt about it."
His voice changed. He seemed sad, somehow.
"Don't you like riding in this warm car? It's so much nicer than sitting at some old bus stop, being all cold and wet like that. Do you even have any idea how long you would have to wait? I hate to think of a young lady having to go through a thing like that."
Uneasiness creeping into her mind, she spoke firmly, hoping this would get the message through.
"I'll be fine. Now let me out."
She could see his eyes reflected in the rear view mirror. They were narrowed, giving him a look of great concentration.
"I thought perhaps you might want to come home with me tonight, have a warm place to sleep, stay out of the rain. I have a guest room you could stay in. You can go to the bus stop in the morning."
Katie reached her hand out slowly and placed it on the door handle.
"No thanks, I'm good. Thanks for offering."
The yellow dog was staring at her, watching closely with intense green eyes. It growled. The doctor turned quickly, saw her hand on the handle, and gave her a cold glare.
"Don't you be trying anything funny, young lady. Just sit tight. We're almost there."
She threw the door open and fumbled with her seatbelt. The doctor yelled fiercely.
"No! Stop her, Daniel!"
The statement was so strange that she paused, halfway out of the open door, to look back at the little yellow dog. It wasn't a dog anymore. It was… she had no idea. Fur disappeared rapidly as its body enlarged, distorting like some special effects trick from a horror move. Limbs grew long and claws receded as tiny paws became full sized human hands and feet. The tail disappeared into the spine and the pointed muzzle melted into a human nose, completing the transformation that left a naked young man sitting next to her on the seat. It happened so fast she almost blinked and missed it. Katie screamed and tried to throw herself from the car.
Tried, because the dog-man had already grabbed hold of her leg and pulled her back in. He reached past her and closed the door.
"Do not be afraid," he told her in a voice that was friendly but rough with disuse. "I do not bite unless Sir tells me to."
He smiled, an honest attempt to calm her. Katie shrieked and scrambled for the door again. Daniel grabbed her, holding her arms behind her back and pressing her into the seat. He grunted as he struggled with the flailing girl.
"Got her, Sir! She can't get away now."
Dr. Jameson watched as best he could using the rear view mirror. He could see Daniel's face as he spoke, beaming like a child who had just handed his parents a report card with straight As. It was reassuring to see that Daniel remained so eager to please. He was The Master; the creature's whole world revolved around him.
"Splendid!" he said cheerfully, always careful to use plenty of positive reinforcement. "Good boy, Daniel, good boy. Just try to keep her from hurting herself."
Daniel smiled and nodded.
"Yes, Sir. You be a good girl, Katie. Be a good girl."
The pleas fell on deaf ears. Katie screamed and screamed until her throat was raw, and then she screamed some more.
Derek Cross pulled a knife from his pocket and cut open one of the many cardboard boxes on the table, slicing through the clear tape on which the warning FRAGILE had been written in bold letters. Fishing through the packing peanuts he withdrew a large test tube rack. He carried it carefully to another table and placed it beside the other glassware he had unpacked so far. Before he could check the box for any more items he heard the sound of the main door of the warehouse opening.
Derek groaned. He could not imagine why the doctor felt the need to come and check on his progress. He had assisted with laboratory relocations before, and he hadn't broken or misplaced a thing. He was twenty-two years old; having someone watch over his shoulder made him feel like a little kid again.
It soon became apparent that the doctor was not alone when he paused in the doorway of the warehouse and turned to look back outside. Derek could hear a struggle taking place and hurried over to see what was happening. The doctor stood tense, fists clenched at his sides.
"I am losing my patience with you, young lady!"
There was a sudden yelp of pain.
"Bad girl! I bite you if Sir lets me. Do I bite her?"
"No, no, that won't be necessary. You should feel ashamed of yourself though, Katie, hurting my friend like that."
Derek recognized the second voice, though he had rarely heard it spoken. The creature usually followed Dr. Jameson around in the form of a small dog, but Derek knew it could become human as well. The first time he had seen this special "trick" it had left him feeling pretty freaked out, but by now the novelty had worn off.
"Have you got the cage ready, Mr. Cross?"
Derek turned and sprinted for the other side of the room, calling back as he ran.
"Yeah, yeah, just give me a second!"
He pulled a key chain from his pocket and selected the appropriate key to open the door of the cage.
"Quickly, quickly! You mustn't let Daniel do all the work. He has been through quite enough already, I think."
As he turned he could see that Daniel had already dragged the screaming girl halfway across the room. The moment he saw her face he froze, too stunned to remember his orders. The girl noticed his confused expression and clung to it with every ounce of hope in her soul.
"Please, oh god, please help me! Make them let me go!"
She really was a sorry sight. Dripping wet and sobbing hysterically, she looked like she had already endured a nightmare and was rapidly losing the strength to keep fighting it. Derek continued to stare as Daniel threw her into the cage. He heard a noise behind him and turned to be greeted by the doctor's grinning face.
"Isn't it just fantastic? Found her by the side of the road as I was driving up here. Easiest dollar we've ever made! I'll need you to contact Mr. Gomez first thing tomorrow morning. He has placed an order for a young girl and I think he shall be quite pleased with this one."
Derek looked back at the girl, who was still sobbing.
"No, no, please don't," she begged, staring right into his eyes. "Don't let them do this."
The doctor continued to grin and shook his head.
"It's no use, child. He works for me. Now then, let us see the damage you have done to poor Daniel."
He kneeled down to examine Daniel's toe, which she had stomped on with all her strength during her failed escape attempt. When he tried to touch it Daniel flinched and whimpered.
"There there, it's all right. I know it hurts, but it will be all right."
He stood again and patted him gently on the shoulder. Daniel relaxed, closing his eyes and leaning his head in the direction of the doctor's caresses.
"Oh, you've been such a good boy. I'll give you something extra nice when we get home, OK? Now, why don't you go wait for me in the car? I won't be long."
Derek did not notice him leave. The doctor thrust his hand in front of his face and snapped his fingers.
"Earth to Derek! Come back to me, Mr. Cross! Goodness, I have never seen you so scatterbrained. You must be tired. Why don't you take the rest of the night off?"
Dr. Jameson turned before he got a response and walked over to the cage. The girl backed away and pressed against the far side, glaring daggers at him. He smiled at her and rested his hand on the bars.
Derek spoke slowly, hesitating as he continued to process the thoughts that were running through his head.
"Take… the night off? But you wanted me to get this stuff unloaded as soon as possible. I'm almost finished. It'll probably be just another hour or so."
The doctor fingered one of the bars, drawing his hand slowly over the cold, smooth metal. He was quiet, distant sounding.
"I am a lonely man, Mr. Cross. You are young and good looking. You do not understand what it is like. But surely you do know that it is good to have the company of a beautiful young woman every now and then, yes? So I ask you again, come back in the morning."
He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, shivering as the first waves of arousal washed over his body. It had been too long since he had allowed himself the indulgence. There would be a lot of pent-up energy for him to work through tonight.
Katie struggled to remain calm and clear-headed, to think of a way out of this. The man was a hungry predator and he had her trapped in a cage; just what were her options exactly? She was already as far away from him as she could get.
"Don't you dare touch me!"
He continued to smile, but she could see through it now. There was nothing there, just a cold emptiness that frightened her more with every second she thought about it.
"Do not worry, Katie. After the drugs have done their job and preformed the mindwipe it will be as if it never happened. You can start your life all over again. That is what you were doing, was it not? Running away from home? I am simply guiding you into a new home. Yes. Yes, that is what I am doing for you. Heh, you'll probably like me again when it's over. Most of my 'patients' do."
He chuckled to himself, as if enjoying a good joke. Derek couldn't take it anymore.
"I really don't think that's a good idea. She's been through a lot of stress already. Why don't we just let her rest for the night and then come back and-"
He was cut off, though the doctor did not turn around to address him.
"Are you judging me, Mr. Cross? Seems a funny thing to do, what with all the things you've been involved in lately."
Derek took a step forward and glared at the back of the doctor's head.
"We do enough to these people already. I don't see any need to add on to it, at least not before the drugs, while they're still themselves."
The doctor tucked his hand into his coat pocket and turned to look at Derek from the corner of his eye.
"Is that your final answer, young man?"
He whirled around and Derek suddenly found himself looking down the barrel of a pistol. He raised his hands instinctively.
"Oh dear, oh dear, you have made things very difficult for me, Mr. Cross. I do hate it when my employees go soft on me. Tell me, why now? Why, after all this time? All the men, the women, the dogs. Oh, you were happy to help me send them off to whatever hideous fate I set up for them and share in the profits. You are just as guilty as I am."
Derek's mind raced. He needed to find a way out of this, but all he could do was look at the girl and think about how she was counting on him. He spoke slowly, stalling for time.
"She… she, uh, she looks just like my little sister. I don't suppose you have a sister? No? Well, if you did you'd know what it's like. She's my kid sister; I'd do anything for her. I guess it just took picturing her in the place of one of these people to make me realize that I don't want to do this anymore."
Dr. Jameson rolled his eyes and laughed.
"Oh goodness, that is rich! So sentimental, so idiotic. No Mr. Cross, I do not have a sister, but I do have a brother and if he were to come knocking at the door one of these days I would throw him in the cage like all the rest of them! Speaking of which, that is exactly where you will be going now. I could shoot you first or you could go of your own free will. Your choice. Come now, don't be so frightened. You've seen how blissfully ignorant my patients are after I've treated them. Perhaps you will enjoy it."
Derek was still watching the girl. She snuck quietly across the cage while the doctor talked. What happened next took him completely by surprise.
Katie said a silent prayer of thanks to whoever might be out there listening when she found that her arm was slender enough to fit between the bars and long enough to reach the doctor's head. His hair hung nearly shoulder-length, allowing her to grab a handful and pull back with every ounce of strength in her body. There was a satisfying clang as skull met metal.
Derek grabbed the doctor's wrist and twisted it sharply. He gasped in pain and dropped the gun. Derek threw him to the ground and had the gun in his hands before he was able to get up again.
"Well played, you little backstabber, well played. I suppose you are going to kill me now?"
Derek sneered. He began to open the door to the cage, careful to keep the gun pointed at the doctor.
"No. You were right. I am guilty. I refuse to add murder to the list of things I wish I hadn't done. No, I think I'll leave you right here in this cage as a nice gift for the police."
He stepped back and let the door swing open. Katie ran as fast as her legs could carry her. Derek let her leave. He motioned with the gun.
"All right, in you go. Or do you want me to shoot you first?"
He scowled menacingly at Derek, but stepped willingly into the cage. He gripped the bars and pressed his face against them as Derek finished locking him in.
"You think you can just leave me locked in here like a dog? I'll make you pay. I'll tell them all about you. We can share a jail cell!"
Derek put the keys in his pocket, motioning with the gun once more.
"Give me your car keys. Come on, now. I'm not gonna kill you, but I have no problem with putting a hole through your foot."
He obeyed. Derek took the keys without saying another word and left him alone in the darkness.
Once outside he was not surprised to find the girl sitting on the damp ground near the door with her back against the wall, waiting for him. She looked up at him and smiled weakly.
Derek found he couldn't meet her eyes. He stared past her, out into the dark, rainy warehouse parking lot.
"You're welcome. That wasn't planned, it was just a kind of spur of the moment thing, you know. Good thinking on your part. I think you might have really cracked his head open back there. Listen, uh, can you drive?"
She nodded, so he handed her the car keys.
"Good. You just, uh, you just take his car and go wherever you want. Go back home. Tell the police. Whatever. I just ask you to please not say anything about my being there. Tell them you escaped on your own. They'll believe you over him."
She began to cry again, though he could not tell if it was due to relief or the immense stress she had just experienced. He waited to see if she had anything else to say, jumpy from the sudden change of circumstances and desperate to put as much distance between himself and this place as possible. After she had been quiet for a while he returned to his own car and sped away without giving her another look.
The darkness closing in all around him was surprisingly unsettling. It had never bothered him before, but now he felt as if all his other senses were being heightened in compensation. He hated it. It was too quiet, and the cage smelled like wet dogs.
He sighed and leaned back, wincing when his head touched the bars. There was simply no way to get comfortable in this blasted contraption. He had no idea how much time had passed, but his patience had already reached its end. He grabbed the bars and shook them in frustration.
"Daniel! DANIEL! I'm in here you stupid dog! IN! HERE!"
He did not have to wait long. The main door opened, and although there was little light to let in from the clear moonless night outside this was soon remedied as the switch was thrown.
"Augh, my eyes! Oh, my head. Damn it Daniel, where were you? Is anyone still out there?"
Daniel ran across the room and tried to remove the lock.
"I'm sorry. I went to explore instead of the car. I'm sorry. No one out there. I heard the cars start, two of them. Why are you in there?"
"I'll explain later. Stop it, stop it. You need to use a key to open a lock, remember? Go see if the silver truck is out around back. There should be a spare in there."
Daniel hurried out the back door and found the silver truck where it had been left after Derek unloaded the lab equipment.
"I'll get you out of there. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry this happened. How could I let this happen…"
He whined to himself as he searched for the right key, but he soon found it and was able to grant his master freedom once more. Dr. Jameson stepped out and immediately embraced him in a warm hug, patting him gently to provide further reassurance. Daniel held him tight and relaxed as his nervous fears of incompetence melted away.
"There's a good boy. Now now, don't fuss. It's all right. You've been a good boy. I shouldn't have yelled at you. All better?"
Daniel nodded. The doctor reached out his hand and he gave him the keys.
"All right then, lets get out of here. The bad men in blue will be looking for us. We will have to lay low for a while."
The doctor released his embrace and gave him a few seconds to concentrate on another shapeshift, then he turned and was out the door with the yellow dog at his heels once more.
Outside, he stretched and breathed in the cool night air. It did wonders for his head, though it still throbbed a bit. He laughed as he thought of the looks on the faces of those who would been sent to pick him up.
"Won't they be surprised when they come looking? 'Where did he go? Oh no, we thought we had him!' Haha! Not this time. Not now, not ever."
He opened the passenger door of the silver truck and the yellow dog leapt up onto the seat. He scratched it behind the ears. The dog wagged its tail and nuzzled his hand.
"Oh Daniel, you really are a good boy. Whatever would I do without you?"