Ben hopped off his motor scooter and ran his fingers through his hair to smooth it back into place then swiped his magnetic key card through the lock of the outer glass door and walked into the lobby of Biogentec. He held out the photographic identification card dangling from a cord about his neck and greeted the brawny man behind the reception desk. "Hi Sam."
The guard checked the card as he did nearly every day then smiled. "How's it going, Ben?"
"Pretty good," Ben replied stretching the neck of his polo shirt open and dropping the card back in. "Dad busy?"
Sam looked at the computer screen and clicked on one button. "He's not available, Ben. I think the board is meeting because most of the members came in about an hour ago."
"What else is new?" Ben muttered under his breath, then audibly said, "Guess I'll go on up to the lab."
"Sure thing." Sam scanned the panel on his desk from which he could control all of the lifts during periods of heavy traffic or, if necessary, in an emergency. "May take a minute or so, looks like the cars are all engaged."
"Thanks, Sam. No great rush." Ben sauntered to the bank of lifts at the back of the lobby where he pulled out his card again and looked at the floor indicators. All were lighted except one.
'Nobody ever said I couldn't use this one,' Ben thought, swiping his card through the slot built into the frame of the door of the small lift. The door slid open silently then closed after Ben had stepped in. To his amazement there was only one button. He pressed it and read the message that popped up in the small LCD window above the button: Use key card to actuate. Unaware that his card was a duplicate of his father's and the only one besides his father's and that of the head of security that granted access to every area of the building, he passed his card through the slot and the lift started upward so swiftly his stomach felt as though it had hit the floor.
A few seconds later the lift slowed, came to a gentle halt and the door slid open. He stepped into a well-furnished living room and glanced out the tinted window.
"Who are you?" A light baritone voice inquired.
Ben turned enough to see a boy near his own age standing a few feet away. To his amazement, the boy was supported by his one leg and crutches. From the right leg of his cargo shorts protruded a short small leg like that of a very young child.
"I'm Ben Fredericks. Who are you?"
The boy moved closer. "Mike Phillips. How did you get up here?"
"In the lift. How do you think?"
A puzzled expression crossed Mike's face. "But it takes a special card. My … well I don't know what you'd call him, but Joe, the guy that takes care of me, has the only one I know of."
"Don't you have one so you can go out when you wish?"
Mike shakes his head. "I ain't been outside here in two years."
"Ya gotta be kidding!"
Mike shakes his head. "Naw. I mean I'm supposed to stay inside here and not be around people and all, cause I might catch something and it would screw up what they're trying to do." He looks at Ben woefully, "But no matter what Joe says, I know it ain't working any more so I wanna go outside and have a friend to do things with."
Ben was only half listening as he stared at the boy. 'He's so beautiful,' Ben thought to himself, seeing the black hair, blue eyes, and pale complexion. Most of all he liked the way he looked on crutches. 'If only he didn't have that stupid looking little leg.'
"Where are you?" Mike asked.
"Huh?" Ben's conscious attention returned.
"I asked if you want something to drink?"
"No thanks. Maybe I'm not supposed to be here, I mean if you're supposed to be in isolation. I don't want to give you any kind of disease or whatever."
"If Joe says it's okay an' all, will ya come back? Sure get lonely sometimes and we could send e-mails or talk on the phone if nothing else."
Ben smiled. "Yeah. What's your e-mail? I'll send you a line and you can get mine from it."
Mike's smile caused Ben to feel his legs turning to jelly. "Easy. Legboy at Biogentec dot org."
Ben stepped into the lift. "Got it!" He called as the door slid shut.
Realizing he had been in a restricted space without his dad's permission, Ben was relieved when the door of the lift slid silently open and he was able to slip into the regular lift next to it without being noticed. He pressed the button for the fourth floor.
When the door slid open, he stepped out into a room containing four desks occupied by divisional secretaries. One of them looked up. "Hi, Ben, Joe's back in his office. Go on back."
"Thanks, Nancy," Ben replied and walked down the hall. He no longer dreaded the shots for Joe was so easy it was seldom that Ben even knew when one was administered.
"Hi, Joe." He said, stopping in the office doorway.
A thin man with a scarred face looked up from the papers he was studying. "Hi, Ben. Come on in and I'll swab down your arm then get your shot from the lab." Rubbing Ben's upper arm with an antiseptic laden cotton swab, he comment, "Running a little late today, aren't you?"
"Yeah. All the regular lifts were busy, so I took the little one, but it only went to a penthouse or something. I didn't even know it was there. The guy up there said a man named Joe takes care of him. Is that you?"
Joe dropped the used syringe into the disposal bin. "Your card works in that elevator?"
"I'm sorry you went up there, Ben, but I don't guess it makes that much difference now anyway. I was about to tell your dad the project is a bust."
"Mike said you were trying something to make him grow a leg."
Joe's face grew stern. "You don't mention anything about this to anybody, got it?"
"Yeah, but can't I talk to you about Mike?"
Joe shakes his head. "Too many ears around outside this place. It's best you just forget you ever went up there or saw that kid."
"What about dad?"
"He ain't gonna be very happy about your finding out all this, but if you gotta, he's the one to talk to."
"You're damn right I'm unhappy," a deep voice growled behind Ben.
"Dad! How'd you know I was here?"
"I always know where you are when you're in this building." He looked at Joe. "Has he had his shot yet?"
"Yes, sir. When he first came in."
"Good. Let's go to my office, Ben."
Ben followed his father to the lift and remained silent as they rose to the sixth floor.
"Want a Pepsi, son?" His father asked.
"You know where they are. Get one then sit down." He pointed to a comfortable leather chair facing his desk then went behind the desk to his own executive chair and leaned back.
"Joe is wrong, son. I'm not mad at you for going up to the penthouse."
"But you said you were unhappy."
"I did, but I'm unhappy that the project hasn't worked as we expected and that poor young man has spent two years in isolation for nothing. Though except for not having anyone to spend time with, he's had far more than he would have."
"He was recruited from an orphanage. He voluntarily agreed to take the treatment in hope that he would have a usable leg where he had only a tiny vestigial limb no bigger than my little finger. We were all excited when it began to grow, but four months ago it reached the size it is now and still shows no bone formation. Joe and his people have been unable to find any reason." He shook his head. "Even had the leg reached full length, without bones it's useless. It's a real shame. Not only are we disappointed, but that young man is also."
"So what happens now?"
"I haven't really given it a lot of thought as yet. I suppose the end result is that he'll go back to the orphanage until he's eighteen." He looked at Ben thoughtfully. "I hate to see Mike just kind of discarded like he isn't anything more than a laboratory animal who's no longer useful. He deserves something good for the two years he's been isolated from young people his age."
"Can I go back to see him? Maybe go swimming, play video games, or something?"
His father got up and pulled Ben up into a hug. "Thank you, son. I'm delighted you want to visit Mike. I'll let you know when as soon as I check with Joe. Any time you're here let my secretary know and you can ride home with me."
"Okay. I'm going home now 'cause I got some homework for tomorrow."
Ben's father smiled and ruffled his son's hair. "I'm proud of the way you do the necessary things before playing. Tell Annie I'll be home for dinner."
Ben could hardly concentrate in his classes the next day; he had only to close his eyes and he could visualize Mike on his crutches and without the useless leg. When the last bell rang, he was out the door almost before the ringing ceased, knowing he had his father's permission to see Mike.
He skirted Sam's inspection of his card and called, "Hi, Sam. In a rush." He was in the small lift, the door closing and cutting off Sam's reply.
"Mike," Ben called as the lift door slid open.
"We're here," Mike's voice called from a sofa and chairs near the patio doors.
Ben rounded the corner of the tiny foyer and saw both Mike and Joe seated facing each other. Both had serious expressions.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt," Ben said, backing away. "Dad said it was okay."
"Come have a seat," Joe said. "Maybe you can help me convince Mike that removing his useless little leg isn't going to be that bad. He also wants to put it off for six months 'til he's sixteen so he doesn't get sent back to the children's home automatically."
"How long can he stay here after you cut off his leg?"
"He heals fast, so he could leave after a week if he had some place nearby to stay so I could keep check on him, but if he stays here it would be about eight weeks or a little more."
"No rush that I can see, besides I plan on getting to know Mike so we can do things together."
Joe stands. "Remember, you get a shot tomorrow."
"Yeah, yeah, I know. I'll be here."
"Okay, then. I'm gone," Joe says, sliding his card through the call slot of the lift.
Mike hops up and grins at Ben. "Let's hit the water."
The phone rang before Mike could get to the door. He answered then held the receiver out to Ben. "It's for you."
"Oh, hi, dad. We're going swimming." … "Yes, sir. I would like that. I'll ask him and call you back."
"Hey, Mike, you want to spend the weekend at my place? You can ride back in with dad when he comes to work Monday."
At Mike's broad smile, Ben called his dad's office to tell his father's secretary to tell him that Mike will be joining them. He replaced the phone in the cradle and looked around. "This really is on top of the building."
"Yeah. There's a lot of plants on the patio by the swimming pool. I never knew they could put a pool and all that water on the roof of a building before." Mike grins. "Sure would make a mess downstairs if that pool was to spring a leak."
"Who cares," Ben yells, "Let's get wet! Race ya!" When Mike beat Ben to the pool, Ben ran to the edge and cannonballed him. Finding that Mike swims well, they swam laps for a while then race one another. Ben wins by a small margin and gloats.
"You wouldn't have if I didn't have this stupid little leg dragging and holding me back," Mike says, grabbing the edge of the pool for support as he caught his breath.
"Another good reason to let Joe get rid of it for you. Gee, we could use a guy like you on the swim team at school. There's only one guy faster than me, and you damn near beat me."
"I'd like that, but there's no team where I had to go to school, no pool either. One of the men here taught me to swim after I came here. It's the only chance I ever had to do something fun like this."
"Gee, don't they let kids at the orphanage have any fun?"
"Sure, but they make us work around the place too. All we got for fun is football, baseball, and that kind of stuff. There's movies, too, on the weekend, but that's about all."
"Then you gotta stay here. There's lots of things we can do together now you can leave here."
Mike's arm went around Ben's shoulders in a hug. "I'd like that. I'm ready to go in and get something to drink. What 'cha want?"
"A Pepsi if you've got any."
Mike smiled. "Got anything you want. I may not be able to go out, but they sure make life easy for me. If I want something, all I gotta do is ask." His smile vanished. "I sure am glad to see somebody young. Since you can get up here, it would be great if we could do things together. I get awful lonely at times."
Ben follows Mike to the table set in a bay near the kitchen and looks out as Mike opens the fridge and pulls out two Pepsis setting them on the table. They open their Pepsis and sit down on comfortable chairs facing each other.
"How did you get up here?" Mike asks again.
Ben shrugs. "Used my card like always, but I thought I'd be on the top floor where my dad's office is."
Mike's eyes widen. "Your card works in the elevators?"
"Yeah. It always does. In the other lifts, I mean."
"Your old man must be somebody, cause like I said, I thought Joe had the only card that worked in this one."
"My dad owns Biogentec, I guess, I never asked him. He gave me the card so I can get to the lab to take my shot twice a week. I can go most anywhere unless he tells me not to. I don't much care since I don't understand half of what he tells me about things."
Mike reaches down and picks up the little foot, holding it out so Ben can see it clearly. "They said if everything went right, they could grow me a leg. I mean I was born without my leg, so that sounded awful good to me. Like if it worked I could walk, run, and all that. Well it started out pretty good and this grew all in one year, but it ain't grown none for the past six months. It don't work neither. I can't make it move 'less I pick it up like I'm doin' now. If it ain't gonna get any better I might as well let Joe cut it off 'cause it gets in my way."
Ben looks at his watch and springs up. "I gotta get down to the lab for my shot."
"How old you think I am?"
"Maybe twelve or something about that."
"Twelve, hell! I'm sixteen. That's why I take the shots, they make me grow."
Ben grins. "Grown five inches this year. I want to be at least six feet before I stop, then I can get back at those kids at school that call me shrimp and stuff."
"I wish my leg was growing like that." As Ben slid his card through the slot to open the door of the lift, Mike asked, "Will you come back? This has been fun and we can do things like go swimming or play video games. I got a lot of them."
"Sure. I don't have any friends either."
Mike impulsively hugged Ben, who after a moment, returned the hug. "See you tomorrow after I get out of school."
"It's sure good to have somebody to talk to besides Joe. He don't stay long when he comes up anyway."
"I like you. I don't have any friends at school, so I'm glad I've got you to talk to. The old man thinks it's great we got together."
"I hear Mike is gonna spend the weekend at your place," Joe commented as he dropped the used syringe in the disposal bin the next afternoon.
"Yeah. It's gonna be fun. I'm gonna teach him how to ride the ATV and all, then I'm gonna take him to the mall and we'll just hang. Why?"
"Don't wear him out, because I plan to amputate his leg next Wednesday."
"You gonna do it in the lab?"
"I was gonna come stay with him after I get out of classes. He should be awake if you do it early."
"I'm not sure that's a good idea, Ben. Check with me on Tuesday when you come for your shot."
"Okay. I just figured he might want a friend cause he's upset about his leg not growing right."
"I guess maybe he is. Now scat! I've got some lab work to get done and reports to write."
Mike was at the door of the lift the moment it opened. He grabbed Ben in a hug and asked, "What am I gonna need at your place?"
"Whatever you feel comfortable in." He opens the closet door and moves his hand from garment to garment. "Here, you will need these dark blue Dockers and a polo shirt or a white shirt to wear at dinner. Bring your bathing suit, too."
"Looks like a lot of clothes fer just a couple of days," Mike says, looking at what Ben has laid out on the bed for him.
"Not really. What are you gonna carry 'em in?"
"Back pack is all I got."
"That's big enough. Get 'em in while I tell the old man we're ready."
Sam looked up as the door of the small lift opened and Ben stepped out with Mike. "Wal I'll be! They lettin' you outa here, boy?" He says to Mike.
"Yes, sir. I'm really glad to get out of here fer a weekend. Ben's done invited me to his home and all."
"You sure you got permission for him to go with you, Ben?"
"Absolutely!" A deep voice declares.
"Mr. Fredricks! I didn't see you come up, sir," Sam replies, jumping up.
"If you're ready, boys."
"Oh, man! Look at that! It's fer us?" Mike asks as the Mercedes limo glides to a stop and the chauffeur steps out to open the doors first for Ben's father and then for the boys. He takes Mike's crutches and places them in the boot.
Though there was little conversation during the ride, nothing they passed escaped Mike's attention. As they paused for the gates to the estate to open, Mike looks at Ben in awe. "You got gates and everything!"
"I do not like to be bothered by strangers and peddlers coming to the door of my home," Ben's father replies. "Besides, I do some work in my study here I wouldn't want anyone to see."
"Ben says you own Biogentec?"
"That's correct. I started the company and when we went public for additional financing, my accountant made sure I always owned no less than fifty-one percent of the shares, so in effect I still own it."
"I sure wish I knew a lot about business like you do, sir."
Ben's father favored Mike with a smile. "It's all a matter of learning all you can in school then applying it in the real world."
Mike nods. "Yes, sir, but ain't likely to be any college fer me. I just gotta hope you don't send me back to the orphanage before I come sixteen."
"We'll see, son," Ben's father says gathering up his briefcase as the limo slowed to a stop in front of the mansion.
Ben grabs Mike's back pack. "Come on up to my room."
Mike has stopped in the entry hall, looking at the long sweeping staircase. "Man, that's gonna be something to go up."
"Not goin' that way." Ben walks to the back of the hall and opens a door. "This is easier."
"You mean you got an elevator in your house?"
"Sure. Only thing wrong with it is it's slow. I like 'em fast like the one to your penthouse."
"Okay, here we are!" Ben tossed Mike's back pack to one of the two queen-size beds. "That one's yours. The bath's in here. You go first if you want. We gotta dress for dinner."
"You mean all fancy?"
"Nah, just Dockers and a nice button-up shirt."
After they had washed up and dressed they went down to the main floor and Ben knocked on a heavily paneled door.
"Come." In response, he pushed the door open. His father sat with a book in hand, a drink on the table beside him. "Ah, boys, come in. Bug, get your friend something to drink then pass the hors d'oeuvres."
Ben crosses to the wet bar and takes a wine cooler from the fridge for himself then looks at Mike.
"Gimme one of them, too. I ain't never had but one er two but they was some good."
Ben pulls another from the fridge and removes the cap, handing the bottle to Mike.
"Bug! What is the rule about drinks?" Ben's father asks.
"No bottles, sir. Sorry, I forgot," Ben said reaching for glasses.
"That's better. What do you have planned for the weekend?"
"Not much. I thought whatever Mike wants to do is what we'll do. If it's nice tomorrow I thought we might take the ATV's and maybe have a picnic down by the lake if Annie'll fix us a lunch to take."
"Good idea. I hope you'll enjoy something like that, Mike."
"I will, cause I never been on a picnic before. I sure wish we could take some of these shrimp along. They're mighty good."
"Bug, be sure to tell Annie to fix some for you and Mike."
At dinner, Mike watched Ben carefully, making few mistakes, though Ben did stifle a snicker and kick Mike's leg under the table when Mike picked up a spoon after the maid set a fingerbowl in front of him.
"How come your old man calls you Bug?" Mike asks on the way up to Ben's room after dinner.
"Cause I was so little when I was a kid. My legs were so short I couldn't take the steps like normal, so I used to go up on all fours. Dad said I looked like a bug, so he started calling me that, but that's when he had the lift put in for me."
With someone to fill the time, Ben had equally as much fun as Mike, though they spent Saturday playing with Ben's trains and, later, reading because of the rain pouring down.
As he prepared to leave for school Monday morning and Mike and Ben's father readied themselves to go to Biogentec, Ben hugged Mike.
"I sure had a great time with you here. Tuesday after school I'll come up and get you and we'll find something to do."
Mike returns the hug. "I had more fun than you. I wish I didn't have to go back, I like it here with you."
"Gimme a chance to talk to the old man," Ben whispers in Mike's ear.
Tuesday afternoon Ben bursts through the door of Biogentec and waves his ID card at the desk, when a deep voice snarls, "Hold it right there! Where do you think you're going?"
Ben looks toward the desk, but it's a much younger muscular man standing glaring at him. "Where's Sam?"
"None of your business, kid, now get over here."
"Where'd you get this card?" The guard demands after glancing at it.
"My father gave it to me. Give it back, I'm in a hurry."
"Yeah? For what?"
"I've got to get my shot then I'm going up to get Mike."
"I don't think so."
Ben grabs the house phone and punches in the number for his father's office. "Mrs. Atkins, this is Ben, let me talk to dad, please." … "Oh, would you talk to the guy on the desk then?"
Ben hands the phone to the guard, to hear, "Yes, Ma'am. I'm just filling in today. Sorry."
Ben snatches his card from the guard and sprints toward the lifts. He's confused when he gets off at the fourth floor and Nancy holds up her hand. "Joe's not here today, Ben."
"Oh, okay. See you tomorrow, then."
"Mike!" Ben calls as he exits the lift at the penthouse.
When there's no answer, Ben looks in every room. On his second time through the penthouse, Ben sees a small piece of note paper on Mike's bed.
Joe's making me go somewhere with him and he ain't never been rough like he is now. I'm scared. Help me.
"Oh shit," Ben mumbles as the lift plummets downward. He dashes from the car into the one next to it and hits button 6.
"Wait, Ben, your father's busy," Mrs. Atkins says as Ben rushes past her desk towards his father's office door.
"'Mergency," he says, throwing open the carved wooden double doors. "Dad, Mike's in trouble."
Five heads swivel in Ben's direction. "Son, you know better than to interrupt when I'm busy."
"But, Dad, Mike's gone and he left this note." Ben says handing his father the note.
Ben's father reads the short note and looks at his son. "Wasn't Joe planning on operating on Mike tomorrow?"
"Yes, sir. I was gonna be here with Mike."
"Did you ask Sam if Mike went somewhere with Joe?"
"Sam isn't here. There's some guy I never saw before."
"Gentlemen, please excuse me. We seem to have an emergency so I will reschedule this meeting at a more relaxed time. Jim, please remain, this concerns your department." He picks up a phone and asks Mrs. Atkins to have the head of security report immediately.
Ben gazes in awe at the large muscular man who snaps to attention before his father's desk.
"Have a seat, Dave. You know Mr. Reynolds from research and this is my son Benjamin. Ben has become friendly with Mike, the young man in the penthouse. It appears that he has been taken away from here under duress and is quite possibly in danger. It is vital that we find him and fast, before Joe is able to take any tissue samples from him as I believe is the plan. What do you suggest?"
"Is Sam involved, sir?"
"He well could be. Ben says he didn't come in today."
"That's true, sir. Let me call the desk and have a total house search instituted. You could make an announcement over the public address system, sir, asking if anyone knows anything about this to call your office, if you will."
"Excellent idea." He picks up the phone on his desk and looks at the numerous buttons. "Which one is it? I've never used the public address before."
"Intercom and dial 500, sir."
After a few minutes of waiting while nothing appeared to happen, Ben says, "I want to go out and look for Mike."
"No, Ben, stay here. I don't want to have to wait for you if we have to move fast, and I know you want to be with us when we find Mike. He may need your company very badly."
Ben paced the floor with his father for some minutes then the phone rang. His father sprang to answer before the security chief could. "Yes, send him up to my office immediately," he said and slammed the phone down.
"We maybe in luck. The mail boy said he saw Joe and a one-legged boy going out about mid-morning. He thought it was odd when Joe ignored him as they have been friendly."
He looked at Dave. "Let Ben ask the questions. I'm told the mail boy is quite timid and we'll both intimidate him."
There was a tap at the door and Mrs. Atkins pushed it open. "Billy, sir." She pushed the pimply faced young man in his late teens into the office and shut the door on her way out.
"Billy, I understand you are our mail boy," Ben's father says softly. At the boy's nod, he says, "My son Ben has some questions. Please answer them to the best of your knowledge. Ben?"
"You say you saw Joe and Mike go out this morning and they haven't come back?"
Billy nods. "Not that I've seen and I made the late delivery to Joe's office about a half hour ago."
Remembering, Ben asks, "Did you see anybody else with Joe and Mike?"
"Yeah. Sam was kind a pushing the one-legged kid along and holding onto his belt like he was 'fraid he would try to get away."
"Do you know where they could be going?"
Billy shakes his head. They could be going' anywhere. I don't know."
"Come on. You're Joe's friend. Don't he ever take you places?"
Billy nods slowly. "I ain't s'posed to tell. It's like our secret place."
"Damn it, Billy, …" Dave starts, but Ben's father tells him to shut up.
"You love Joe, don't you, Billy? And you don't want to get him in any trouble. Is that it?" Ben asks kindly.
"You and Joe are gay, aren't you?"
Billy starts to cry. "I can't help it, and Joe is nice to me. I know I ain't good looking like you and I ain't gonna get no better than Joe." He looks up at Ben's father. "Please don't fire me, Mr. Fredricks. I ain't got no family and I need this job to live."
"Then tell Ben where Joe takes you when you go out with him."
"He … he's got a little shack out in the country next to a stream where there's lots of frogs and lizards. I help him catch some of 'em sometimes."
"Can you take us there?"
"If I gotta."
"You do. The life of the young man you saw with Joe and Sam may depend on it," he adds under his breath to keep from upsetting Ben, "if we're not too late."
Within five minutes Dave is driving the Mercedes limousine containing Ben, his father, and Billy who is sitting in front next to Dave to direct him. Behind the limo are four sheriff's department cars.
Billy points to the left and the limo vibrates violently as it moves slowly along the rutted tracks leading into a pine grove. Dave stops at the edge of the small clearing and looks at the small clapboard cabin.
"I think you and Ben should stay here, Mr. Fredricks, and let the deputies and our men surround the place."
Before they can stop him, Ben is out of the car and running toward the cabin, yelling, "Mike!"
The door of the cabin opens, Sam's bulk filling it. "What ya going here, Ben?"
"I want Mike, Sam. Please, ya gotta let me see 'im."
Sam looks at the others now standing in the clearing. "I tol' Joe he was crazy, but they done offered me a lot of money, Ben. I'm 'bout to retire and I need it 'cause I ain't never been able to save anything much what with my wife bein' so sick afore she died."
Ben hugs the big man. "I'm sorry, Sam. Please, where's Mike?"
"Who else is out there, Sam?" Ben hears Joe's harsh voice call.
"Big boss and 'bout a dozen men. Mostly deputies."
"An' you got good ol' Ben right there, ain't you? Well don't let 'im go 'cause he's our ticket outta here. I'm near 'bout done then we split, taking Ben along for insurance. Sure as hell ain't nobody gonna hurt him with the big man present."
"What about Mike?" Ben calls.
"What about 'im? Soon's I get 'im patched up where I cut off his leg we're leavin'. You want 'im you can have 'im."
The waiting intensified until a few minutes later Joe walked rapidly to the door and pushed past Sam, carrying a cooler. "Let's go. I got what we need."
Ben slipped from Sam's grasp and ran into the cabin and toward the only other door. Mike lay nude and unconscious on a wooden table, a roughly sutured incision still bleeding slightly where Mike's incomplete leg had been.
"Oh, God, Mike. Wake up," Ben said, hugging Mike to him.
"He'll wake up when he can. Let's go!" Joe's harsh voice sounded in Ben's ear as his shoulder was grasped tightly.
"Move!" Joe forced Ben along in front of him. Sam stood at the door holding the cooler. Joe grabbed the cooler from Sam's hands. Before Sam could catch hold of Ben, he was running back toward the cabin.
"Damn it, Sam, shoot him!" Joe yelled. "He's our ticket out of here."
With two fingers, Sam slowly takes the pistol from the holster on his belt and drops it on the ground. "Hell, no. Ben ain't never done nothin' to me 'cept be nice as a kid could be. He ain't no snob despite his old man's money and he's only trying to help that poor boy you done cut on." Sam turns toward Mr. Fredricks. I'm sorry I done got messed up in this, Mr. Fredricks, but ain't no way I'll ever hurt Ben. I'm gonna go back and get them boys and bring 'em to you safe."
"I believe that, Sam. Thank you," Ben's father calls back.
Sam has taken but a few steps when Joe suddenly sets the cooler down and dives for the pistol Sam had dropped to the ground. He picks it up and before anyone can react, shoots Sam in the back. "That much more for me," Joe says as Dave shoots the pistol from his hand and the deputies rush forward.
Ben and his father enter the private hospital room with broad smiles.
"How you feel?" Ben asks as he hugs Mike.
"Mighty good now. Help me get dressed 'cause the doctor says I can go home." He smiles at Ben's father. "The best part is knowing I got a home to go to."
"And you're enrolled in the academy Ben attends. You have a bright future, Mike, so make the best of it. I expect Bug has most of it planned out for you already."
"Dad, Can't you stop calling me Bug now. Dr. Carter says I'll be six feet tall in another month, so I gotta get all new clothes. Mike and I are going shopping soon as we get home, 'cause he needs some, too."
"Yes, Ben, you have gotten well past the 'bug' stage. If I doubted your maturity, you were a real man in the way you stood up to Sam and Joe. I'm proud of you."
"Why was Mike's little leg such a big deal to Joe?"
"I sort of wondered that, too," Mike says.
"It may not have developed the way we hoped it would, Mike, but it was still the most successful trial we've had of regenerative techniques on humans. The tissue samples from your leg will be the basis for most of the future experimentation. They would be beyond price to any firm working in the same area as they would save repetition of the work we have already successfully done."
"Then I'm glad they didn't get away with it. It was hard for me to hate Joe at first 'cause he used to be so nice to me, but now I know it weren't 'cause he liked me any more than he liked them mice he's got in his lab."
"I'm afraid that's the truth, Mike. I'm sorry to say that he didn't value your life any more than he did a lab animal's which you aren't."
Ben looks at his father and grins. "Wanna bet? Mike's a real animal in bed."
Ben's father slaps him lightly on the head. "Some things are best kept private, young man. You've embarrassed Mike. Now you should apologize."
Ben's eyes are fixed on Mike, he's neatly dressed with the right leg of his Dockers folded neatly up. Ben's father notices. "Yes, son, I think you've found a very hot young man to love." He shakes his head. "To think my whole life has been spent trying to find a way for amputees to grow a limb to replace the one they've lost, and here I've raised a devotee!"