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12.5 on the Ricter Scale

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Three o'clock in the morning is a terrible time to get a phone call from a cousin you don't even like, and it's even worse when the things he's saying to you sound like part of a very elaborate obscene phone call. I was half asleep when I grabbed my cell phone and for a minute I thought it was an obscene phone call, until I recognized Vinnie's voice.

"What?" I asked, but when he started to repeat it, I interrupted him. "No! Don't say it again! That's disgusting!"

"Hang up," Morelli muttered. "Talking to pervs only encourages them."

"It's not an obscene phone call, it's Vinnie," I said.

"Doesn't mean it couldn't," was all he said because he'd fallen back to sleep. That was no surprise; we hadn't gotten to bed until after midnight.

"What do you want in the middle of the night?" I whispered, and Vinnie explained—without getting into specifics again, because I said I'd hang up if he did.

What he had was a medical problem. He'd been with—someone—who had inserted—something—someplace it really, really didn't belong, and now the something wouldn't come out of the someplace.

"Well, call a doctor! What did you wake me up for?"

"Because I don't want Lucille to find out! Because you owe me! Because I can't get to the hospital by myself and I need some help and you owe me! Because if I die, you're out of a job! Are those reasons good enough, or do I need to come up with some more?"

I asked him why the person who had done the inserting couldn't take him to the ER, but apparently said person had cut and run when things got . . . tricky.

It was true, I did owe Vinnie. He'd hired me when nobody had believed in me—of course, he hadn't believed in me either, he'd just been bowing to family pressure, but still, he'd hired me. And it was probably true that if he died, I'd be unemployed, though I was pretty sure Ranger would hire me to work at RangeMan. But if that happened, eventually Morelli would want to kill Ranger, and somebody might end up dead, and it might even be me. It was in my best interests to keep Vinnie alive.

"Could you really die from—that?" I asked, not wanting to get specific myself. Vinnie just yelled. Men have no threshold for pain.

"All right, all right, I'll be there as soon as I can!" I flipped my phone shut.

Struggling out of Morelli's sleeping embrace is only a little easier than struggling out of his waking embrace, and only because when he's sleeping he's not trying to kiss me—or do other things that I want him to do only not right that minute. He didn't even wake up. I got dressed in the dark and I didn't leave a note because I hoped I'd be back before he woke up.

When I got to the motel room Vinnie was in, I found another problem: Vinnie couldn't actually walk. I didn't know if he was doubled over in pain, or if—

I didn't know and I didn't want to know. I knew he couldn't get his pants on, which gave me a clear view of things I would have paid a fortune not to have seen. I threw a sheet over him.

I had a fleeting thought of calling Morelli, to help me get him into the car. But if I called Morelli, I'd have to tell him what was going on and I didn't want to. Morelli wants to marry me, and I kind of maybe someday might want to marry him, too. Morelli's had a wild past, but I'm sure it never included the kinds of things Vinnie is known for, and while he knows in theory that my cousin is a pervert, I didn't want him to know just how debased my gene pool really was. It might give him second thoughts about him wanting me to be the mother of his children.

So I called Ranger. Nothing could shock Ranger, and Ranger knew Vinnie, and Ranger couldn't care less if my cousin's a pervert because all Ranger wanted from me was—well. Maybe that's best left unsaid, too.

I was as clear as I could be without actually saying what had happened. I just told Ranger that Vinnie had had an accident and that he needed some help—I needed some help—

It was probably Vinnie moaning and yelling in the background that turned the whole thing into a big RangeMan emergency, with Ranger and Tank showing up at the Bide-A-Wee motel in full body armor, armed to the teeth. It was kind of funny, but I knew better than to laugh.

"Babe." Ranger could say a whole paragraph with just that one word. "I thought you were being abducted by cattle rustlers, or maybe a herd of mad cows." He glanced over at Vinnie.

"I'm sorry! Is it my fault Vinnie's moaning sounds like mooing?"

"What's the matter with him?" Tank asked. Ranger was looking like he'd like an answer to that question, too. He was also looking at my shirt, which wasn't unusual, since it wasn't really the shirt he was looking at.

"You don't want to know," I assured them both, but then Vinnie managed to tell them, in between moans. I stuck my fingers in my ears, but I could see from the looks on their faces they were having sympathy pain even while they were being disgusted. When Vinnie was finished, Ranger took my hands and gently pulled my fingers out of my ears.

"Why did you call me?" Ranger asked. He was still looking at my shirt.

"Because he says if he dies, I'll be out of a job," I said. "And I can't get him into the car by myself—"

Ranger nodded and told Tank to carry Vinnie to the car. Tank didn't look as though he wanted to do this, but people don't argue with Ranger. Vinnie was wrapped in a sheet, but Tank threw the bedspread over him too, for good measure. I half expected him to throw Vinnie in the trunk of the car. That would have been fine with me.

In spite of the pain he was in, Vinnie insisted on being taken to the Princeton-Plainsboro hospital, which is far enough away that maybe Lucille wouldn't hear about what had happened. Since she had never forgiven him for the incident with the duck, he knew he was on thin ice with her. I couldn't understand why she stayed married to him at all.

Have you ever gone to the emergency room at three o'clock in the morning with three men, two in body armor, one wrapped in a sheet and bedspread and moaning in pain? From the looks we were getting, I was very grateful that Vinnie was trying (belatedly) for discretion. If we'd stayed in our own neck of the woods, someone would be calling Morelli, and in short order I'd be doing some explaining.

The nurse on duty didn't even blink when Vinnie told her what had happened, even though he conveyed it in gasps and whimpers. She said that a doctor would be with him shortly and gave him a clipboard to fill out. I had to do the writing, of course. Apparently Vinnie couldn't write, either.

I was just filling in Vinnie's social security number when I heard a woman's voice say, "What are you doing here?" I looked up in time to see something I didn't even believe was possible: Ranger was blushing.

Well. That was worth getting out of bed for right there, but the evening got better. The woman, Lisa Cuddy, was the very pretty hospital administrator, and I got the very strong feeling she had been to the Batcave. I filed that information away to share with Lula and Connie.

After Ranger had introduced us, Lisa Cuddy asked if everything was all right. Tank had disappeared shortly after depositing Vinnie in the waiting room, Vinnie was mooing again, and Ranger seemed disinclined to talk. And I knew you had a better shot getting a stone to talk than a disinclined Ranger. That left me. I moved closer to Lisa Cuddy and showed her what I had written on the "reason for visit" line on the form. I think she got a little pale, but she held her composure. She looked a me a little strangely, though.

"He's a cousin!" I explained, and then I said, "By marriage!" which was a great big fib, but I didn't care. Even in the best of times I'm not crazy about people knowing Vinnie and I are related.

Lisa Cuddy patted my hand. "We'll get this taken care of right away." She looked around for an orderly or someone to get Vinnie to the exam room." Then she gave me a look I couldn't read. "How fond are you of this cousin?" she asked.

And Ranger actually laughed. Laughing and blushing—who was this woman, anyway?

I looked at moaning, mooing Vinnie. "Not fond at all," I assured her.

She gave me a bright smile.

A couple of orderlies got Vinnie onto a gurney, which seemed like the most practical way of moving him from place to place, and they wheeled him into a curtained area. And I pulled up a chair and sat down to wait.

I don't know where Ranger and Lisa Cuddy disappeared to. I read a magazine, I looked at the clock, I read another magazine. No doctor showed up. I went to the nurse's station to ask what was going on. She took Vinnie's name, looked him up in her computer, and sighed. "He's Dr. House's patient," she said.

"He hasn't even seen a doctor," I protested.

"That's how you can tell he's Dr. House's patient," another nurse muttered.

"He'll be here soon," the first nurse promised me, but I had a pretty good idea she was lying.

I must have gotten used to Vinnie's mooing because I fell into a light doze and was startled awake by a man with a cane standing next to me, looking disdainfully down at Vinnie. I didn't know who he was, but from the look on his face he sure had Vinnie's number.

"Are you the girlfriend?" he asked me.

"I am not his girlfriend!" I said.

The man shrugged. "Wife, girlfriend—"

"He's my cousin!" I wanted that very clearly understood.

The man sneered at me. "That's even more disgusting!"

"I had nothing to do with this," I told him with as much dignity as I could. I was wishing I had brought Morelli with me. Morelli would have punched this guy right in the sneer. "I just brought him to the hospital. Are you a doctor?"

He shook his head. "Accountant. I'm just here to be sure he can pay for the very expensive medical procedure he'll be needing to mend his—"

I stuck my fingers in my ears, saying, "I don't want to hear this, I don't want to hear this!"

When his lips stopped moving, I pulled my fingers out of my ears.

"You're such a devoted cousin, you got dressed in the middle of the night to bring him to the hospital, but you don't want to hear anything about his proposed treatment?"

He seemed to think this was odd, but then I thought he was odd, too. "What kind of accountant works at five in the morning?" I shot back.

"He's not really an accountant, he just has the bedside manner of one." The doctor who had just come around the curtain was young and cute and looked familiar, though I couldn't place him. "What was so urgent that you had to wake me up in the middle of the night?" he asked the accountant who was apparently really a doctor. "What are you even doing here at this hour?"

"Oh, Cuddy thinks this is some kind of punishment, having me working in the middle of the night." This had to be Dr. House, and I'd figured out why Lisa Cuddy had asked me how fond I was of Vinnie. She'd known Dr. House wasn't going to be in any hurry to help Vinnie with his problem. That was all right with me, except that I was tired and wanted to get back to bed before Morelli woke up, since I was hoping he'd never have to find out about this.

"Hey," Dr. House said to his colleague, "how often do you get a chance to see a guy with—"

I stuck my fingers in my ears, which didn't help because he just talked louder, so I started saying "La-la-la!" and then Vinnie started mooing, and one of the nurses came in and told us all to be quiet.

It was a mistake not to listen to what Dr. House was saying because if I had been listening, I would have realized that he was going to fling back the sheet. For the first time I got a clear, unobstructed, and totally repulsive view of parts of Vinnie I never, ever wanted to see. Featured prominently was the reason he kept mooing. I couldn't really blame him, but I didn't want to look at it.

"E-eeww!" I said involuntarily, and Dr. House looked at me like what a girl! while his colleague looked at me sympathetically and pulled the sheet back over Vinnie. Then he lifted it up again to look more closely at Vinnie.

"Good God, how did that happen?"

"Apparently Mr. Plum has some unusual bedroom preferences," Dr. House said, sounding both clinical and amused as hell. "Tonight, things got out of hand, so to speak. I thought you might want to help me with the—er—extraction. Hey, come on, you've got to admit it's pretty cool."

Extraction, I thought queasily, which was silly—I'd known they were going to extract it, that's what we were here for, after all—but still, I hadn't thought I'd have to see them do it! I sort of heard the other doctor say something about me waiting in the waiting area, but it was too late. The room went dark and I slid out of my chair.

The first thing I was aware of when I woke up was my grandmother saying, "She's a bounty hunter!"

I peeked my eyes open, afraid of what I might see, but I was on a bed in my own curtained area. I could hear Vinnie mooing, so I knew he was still nearby.

"Really? How interesting." That was Dr. House, not sounding at all interested.

"She's got her own gun, too," Grandma said. "She keeps hers in her cookie jar. I keep telling her, she should carry it with her like I do—"

I heard two gasps, and I knew Grandma had taken her Smith & Wesson out of her purse.

"How did you get that past Security?" Dr. Wilson asked. I wondered how I knew his name was Dr. Wilson. Maybe I'd heard it in my unconscious state.

"Oh, those Security guys are never interested in me. I always ask if they want to strip search me, but they never do. Then I offer to let them go through my pocketbook—"

"Why are you carrying a set of handcuffs?" Dr. Wilson asked. Grandma must be showing off everything in her pocketbook

"Oh, these are Stephanie's extra set," Grandma said. That wasn't true at all; she'd stolen them from me. I'd wondered where they'd disappeared to. "I like to carry them in case of an emergency."

"What kind of emergency would you need handcuffs for?" Dr. House asked. He was sort of snorting, which I assumed meant he was laughing.

"You never know!" Grandma said cheerfully. "Should he be moaning like that? He sounds like a sick cow."

"Maybe it would be better if you waited in the—" Dr. House said, and Dr. Wilson said, "I really don't think you want to look—"

Grandma was lifting the sheet, I just knew it. Of course she was. At the funeral home she pried open the lids of closed coffins, why wouldn't she look under Vinnie's sheet? Even though there was a curtain between us, I still squeezed my eyes shut. I didn't think to put my fingers in my ears.

"Oh, my! What is that poking out of him? Should he be all swelled up like that? I've never seen anything like that! Of course, I haven't seen a lot of them."

"I think that chain's too tight," Dr. House said. "It's keeping the blood trapped where it is."

"What's the little chain for?" Gramma asked.

That was when I stuck my fingers in my ears and started singing la-la-la again. In a minute I opened my eyes to find Dr. Wilson standing next to me, looking mortified. It must have been Grandma being there that jogged my memory, because that was when I remembered where I'd seen him before.

I took my fingers out of my ears. "You're Cute Dr. Wilson!" I said without thinking. First he blushed, then I blushed.

Grandma stuck her head around the curtain. "That's where I've seen him before! I didn't recognize him in his PJs!"

He was wearing a pajama shirt, but he had on jeans. And slippers.

"Cute Dr. Wilson?" Dr. House asked, coming around to my side of the curtain.

I thought about not explaining, but if I didn't, Grandma would and none of us wanted that. "Dr. Wilson treated a friend of Grandma's, and I drove them to several appointments."

"I was the only one who didn't have to give Sophie ten bucks to go to her appointments with her," Grandma explained. Dr. Wilson put his hand over his face, and I put my hand over mine.

"What's this?" Dr. House asked in a tone so polite I knew it had to be fake.

"When Sophie got the cancer, she was bragging to everybody how cute her doctor was, so Margie asked if she could go along to the next appointment since she never gets to go out of the house and no cute guys ever come to see her. And then Gertrude offered Sophie a dollar, and it turned into a big bidding war. Sophie really made out on that deal. But I never had to pay anything because Stephanie had that snazzy car—what kind of car was that? And she drove us, so I got to go three times for free!"

I felt sorry for Dr. Wilson, the way Dr. House was snickering at him, but it was pretty funny. All Grandma's friends had been mooning over Cute Dr. Wilson the whole time Sophie was under his care. She was almost sorry when she went into remission.

"And what was your cut on this deal?" Dr. House asked him. Cute Dr. Wilson ignored him.

"I bet not even Sophie got to see Cute Dr. Wilson in his pjs!" Grandma said, very excited.

"Maybe, maybe not," Dr. House said obscurely. Cute Dr. Wilson gave him a nasty look. I told myself to stop thinking of him as Cute Dr. Wilson, even though he really was.

"The girls are going to be so jealous!" Grandma exclaimed.

"Grandma, what are you doing here?" I asked.

Gramma pushed the curtain aside, but fortunately the doctors were blocking my view of Vinnie. "Oh, one of the nurses called after you passed out. I was up watching Ronald Colman on one of the cable stations, so I got to the phone before your mother."

That was probably a good thing.

"I took a cab right out here," Grandma said. "They didn't say anything about Vinnie. What's going on with him?"

"He's got a—"

My fingers went back in my ears before I could hear Dr. House elaborate. In a few minutes Dr. Wilson tapped me on the shoulder and mouthed, He's done.

"Vinnie called me to take him to the hospital." I was trying to figure out why the hospital had called my parents' house. I was pretty sure I'd put Morelli down as my emergency contact information in my purse. Not that it was a bad thing he wasn't there; I didn't want him there.

"Don't you think you should do something about your patient?" Dr. Wilson asked Dr. House.

"I've paged a specialist in these matters, but I haven't heard back yet," Dr. House said, rather primly.

"There are no specialists in these matters, unless you've paged a specialist in sado-masochism," Dr. Wilson said.

"Did you?" Grandma asked. "I've always wanted to meet one of those S and M people. Will he be wearing black leather and carrying a whip?"

Both Dr. House and Dr. Wilson laughed, although Dr. Wilson was polite enough to try not to.

"Who did you page?" Dr. Wilson demanded. "Cuddy?"

"Lisa Cuddy?" I asked. They looked at me as though I'd cracked their secret boy code. "If she's gone to the Batcave, I don't think she'll be answering any pages tonight." The second the words were out of my mouth I knew I shouldn't have said them. I was supposed to keep Ranger's secrets secret.

Fortunately neither of the doctors had any idea what I was talking about; they looked at me like maybe I'd hit my head when I fainted. I tried to look mysterious, as though I knew things they would never understand.

"Was Ranger here?" Grandma asked. "I love that Ranger!"

"Who is Ranger?" Dr. House asked.

"He's a bounty hunter, too!" Grandma said. "He's Stephanie's spare boyfriend, for when she gets tired of Joe."

They were still looking at me funny, but it was a different kind of funny from before. I wanted them to stop it, so I pushed back the covers and sat up. "Where are my shoes?" I asked.

No one knew. I was looking under the bed when Lula came charging in.

"What did you do to Tank?" she demanded. She was wearing a gold nightie that went perfectly with the gold her hair was that week. The nightie had a neckline so low and a hemline so high, the material between them was practically a gold thread. Fortunately she also had on a pair of jeans, and, I noticed, a pair of gold kitten heels with fake fur across the top. It was the night for throwing on a pair of jeans with your PJs before you dashed out the door.

"What's the matter with Tank?" Gramma asked.

"He's traumatized! Ranger called him away on an emergency and when he came back, he was all PTSD'd! I want to know who traumatized him!"

Vinnie mooed.

"What was that?" Lula demanded. "Have you got cows in here? I thought this was a hospital!"

"It is," I said, while Gramma said, "That's Vinnie." She pointed to the mooing lump in the bed.

"What's the matter with him?" Lula asked, and lifted the sheet.

I didn't stick my fingers in my ears. With Lula there, there wasn't much point. Lula was one of those people whose voice never needed amplification to be heard across state lines.

"Oh, my goodness," Lula exclaimed. "Oh, my goodness, oh, my goodness! Is there any chance the poor thing's still alive?" Lula asked.

"Of course he's still alive," Dr. House said. "He's still moaning, isn't he?"

"Not him!" Lula snapped. "The poor little gerbil!"

I lay back down on the bed, my icy hands covering my scalding face.

According to Lula, gerbiling wasn't an urban myth, but, to the best of her knowledge, it wasn't something gay men did. "Not that any of my customers were gay," she added. "Well, that is, none of them except one. He wanted to find out if he was missing something. He was, but it wasn't something I could help him with." Lula explained that first a tube was inserted, then a gerbil was persuaded to go through the tube. "You know, some people say you want to use a wet paper towel tube, but ain't nobody can stick one of those up their back end, I don't care who they are. This looks awful narrow, how'd you get the gerbil to go through?"

"It's not a gerbil," Vinnie moaned. "It's a mouse. She said it was better to start with a mouse."

"A mouse!" Lula was appalled. Nothing else had fazed her, but the substitution of a mouse for a gerbil made her curl her lip in disgust. "You know," she said, and from the tone of her voice I knew she was addressing Vinnie, "You're supposed to take the tube out."

"And you should be sure you can retrieve the mouse," Dr. House added.

"It was wearing a leash!" Vinnie yelled. "A little silver leash!"

"Oh!" Gramma said. "That explains the chain! She fastened it to his wee-wee like you'd tie a dog's leash around a tree,"

"More like a sapling," Lula said dismissively.

"The chain broke," Vinnie moaned, "and when she couldn't get Mickey back, she panicked! She took three hundred dollars out of my wallet to pay for the mouse and his leash and left me to fend for myself! I put the tube back in to try to help it find its way, but it's like it's in a maze, looking for cheese!"

"She didn't panic," Lula said. "That's Minnie. Was she wearing a red polkadot dress and hair bow?"

"Yes!" Vinnie moaned.

"Yep, that's Minnie. I don't know what she promised you, but she doesn't do nothin'. She brings a mouse on a little chain and a tube and then she splits. Even if the chain hadn't broke, she'd'a booked. Reason she uses mice is, she don't have to pay for them, she just uses those live traps and catches 'em in her apartment."

"You mean there's a wild mouse inside me?!" Vinnie's voice had gone up an octave. "Get it out!"

"This is ridiculous," Dr. House said. "There just aren't that many places to go in the human excretory system. I think this is a retarded mouse. Three hundred dollars for a retarded mouse and a cheap chain is exorbitant."

"Yeah, that chain's not real silver," Lula said. "I hope you're not allergic to it. You could get an ugly rash from a chain like that. You need to check with me before you get involved with people like this."

"Have you actually done this gerbilling?" House asked Lula. His interest did not sound professional.

She shook her head. "I did a lot of things in my former profession as a ho, but I drew the line at vermin. For that, you gotta go someplace else."

"I think he should have stayed with ducks," Gramma said. "Nobody ever got a duck stuck up their backside,"

"Isn't anybody going to help me?" Vinnie pleaded.

"That's a very good question," Lisa Cuddy said. Her hair was tousled exactly the way women's hair is always tousled in movies after they have great sex, and while her clothes were straightened, there was something about them that looked a little akilter. I wondered if she'd put her underwear on inside out. She definitely had the look of a woman who'd just had a Ranger orgasm, and though her words tried to be sharp, there was a happy lilt to them. "Is anybody going to help this patient?" she asked. "Perhaps one of you doctors, if you've finished with your laughing and pointing."

Dr. House tried to defend himself, but he was undercut by Dr. Wilson's apologizing. Lisa Cuddy escorted the rest of us back to the waiting room.

"I gotta get home," Lula said. "Tank's still all upset and I gotta get him calmed down."

I nodded. "Tell him I'm sorry. Oh, and could you give Gramma a lift? She took a cab here."

"Sure, come on Granny."

"Can you tell me more about this gerbilling?" Gramma asked her. "Are there any other little animals people stick up their backsides? What about squirrels? I bet they'd be real frisky!"

Lula had a besieged look on her face and they hadn't even gotten to the car. "Maybe I should stay around," she said to me. "I hate to leave you here all on your own."

"That's OK, Ranger's around somewhere," I said through a big yawn. "He'll drive me back to my car."

"You might as well go too," Lisa Cuddy said, maybe a little hastily. "They're going to sedate Mr. Plum, so it should be a few hours before he's released. Why don't you go home and get some sleep?"

"Thanks," I said.

She flashed me a very happy smile. "Oh, no, thank you!"

I let myself back into my apartment and walked through the dark to Rex's cage. Being nocturnal, he was busy doing his night job, which consisted of running on his wheel. I crouched down and tapped on his cage. "Hey, there," I said. "I want you to know, I will never, ever let my cousin Vinnie get anywhere near you." I got three Froot Loops out of the box and dropped them into his cage. Rex dashed off his wheel, scarfed up the Froot Loops, and took them into his soup can.

On my way to my bedroom, I thought about how I should use what happened tonight to get something from Vinnie. I probably needed a raise. A higher percentage of the next big bond I brought in would do the trick.

I stripped out of my clothes and climbed back in bed next to Morelli. "Where were you?" he asked sleepily.

"Had an emergency," I said.

"Did you get it taken care of?"

"Yes, it's all settled."

"Time is it?"

I looked at the bedside clock. "Nearly six thirty," I said.

He gathered me to him, snuggled against me, and I listened to him breathe for a few seconds before I fell asleep.