Chapter 1 "Weird Wet Wednesday"
Wind and rain ruled the morning with an iron fist. Along the quiet suburban street, maple trees with leaves curled inside out like little girls pulling their dresses over their faces, flounced nervously on swaying branches. Overhead, a soggy, early morning sky, full of ragged storm clouds reached out with fingers of driving rain to claw the ground, sending scraps of paper, dead leaves and other debris skittering wildly across the dead grass and along the gutters. Mid-March in Princeton, New Jersey, gave no indication of anything even remotely attractive about this middle-class neighborhood. The world, from this part of town, looked bleak and undernourished. A severe winter had not yet let go of its strangle hold on an infant spring which struggled to raise its head from beneath dirty reminders of last month's snowfall. Cars parked along the curb looked cold and long abandoned, and did nothing to lift the blanket of gloom that spread like a pall as far as the eye could see. The street was devoid of life, as though all humanity had packed up its belongings and left the planet.
Beyond the end of the block where the rural road turned into the beginnings of East Side Drive, the headlights of a single automobile pierced the downpour. Slowly it approached through silver curtains of wind-swept rain, motor laboring and windshield wipers struggling to keep up with the onslaught. It slowed for the stop sign at the corner of East Side Drive and Cranston Avenue, tail lights twin coronas in the murky half-light, but did not come to a complete stop. The baby blue Toyota Avalon seemed to be struggling just to keep running, its engine heaving as it pulled into the intersection and continued down the street toward the center of town. In the driver's seat a man leaned over the steering wheel and swiped at the foggy inside windshield with a folded handkerchief, trying to keep ahead of the encroaching condensation. The car's defroster obviously was not working properly, and the driver's side window was down an inch or so even with the pelting rain. That fact seemed to be the least of its problems. It was a nice car, not very old, but even the most expensive automobile required preventative maintenance. This one had had none in a long time.
James Wilson, M. D., was not prone to swearing for no reason. He was a patient soul, and handsome, with the flawless skin of a boy and the demeanor of a priest in a confessional. His sable eyes were gentle as a white tail doe, and his generous mouth was more often than not upturned in the hint of a smile. This morning, however, he was tense and jittery behind the wheel of his three-year-old Avalon. The car was circling the drain mechanically, and he would be lucky if he made it all the way to pick up his friend and colleague and coax the car the rest of the way to Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital where they both worked.
Wilson played hop scotch with both feet, manipulating the gas pedal and brake, trying to will the car to keep running long enough to get him a few more blocks on East Side Drive, a little closer to Gregory House's first-floor condominium. He did not blame anyone else but himself for the car's poor condition. The Avalon had been his wife's car; Julie's car, and Julie could not have cared less about its upkeep. All she knew about cars was that when she turned the key in the ignition, the car started and ran until she turned it off again. And now Julie was gone; sick and tired of her husband's long work hours and his inattention to her constant demands. She was also jealous of the attention James showered upon his disabled best friend, and therefore withheld from her.
On an evening two weeks before, Wilson had returned from work to find the house dark and empty, and all Julie's belongings removed from it. A note on the dining room table announced that he would receive their divorce papers in the mail in a very short time. And now James, suddenly thrust once more into bachelorhood, was on his way to pick up House and drive both of them to work; that was if the car made it that far.
The Avalon finally gave up the ghost halfway down the block before the block where House's condo was located. The engine gave one last gasp, dieseled down and simply quit. Wilson quickly threw the gearshift into neutral and turned the key again as the wipers stopped working. The starter struggled to engage, but the battery quickly drained beneath the load of lights, wipers, defroster, radio and neglect. He steered obliquely toward the curb, fighting the wheel which had gone stiff and then locked when the power shut down. He let the car drift and it barely made it past the intersection with Piedmont before limping to a stop about seven feet further down the street, front tires against the curb, not quite out of the yellow zone. Exasperated, he rested both hands atop the steering wheel and leaned his forehead on them. It was not as though he hadn't seen this coming. He had not taken the time to have the car serviced, and Murphy's Law stated that even a piece of machinery would find a way, like his wife, to get even if it could. With a sigh, he threw the shifter into "park", shut off the headlights and hit the window button. There was not even enough juice left in the battery to close the window.
The windshield fogged up quickly, and soon he could only see out the narrow slit between the top of the window and the roof. Rain beat a mocking tattoo on the metal over his head, and he sighed deeply. He did not even have a raincoat with him, or an umbrella. He was a doctor, not a meteorologist! When Murphy's Law got even, it really got even! He grabbed the keys from the ignition and glared out the slit at the solid wall of rain.
Jim Wilson opened the driver's door into the heavy onslaught of a vengeful Mother Nature. House's place was located another block and a half in the direction the car was already headed. Hopefully, the Princeton cops would not bother checking "no parking zones" too closely today, and he could get by without a ticket until he could have the car towed. Ducking his head, he crossed the puddle-filled street, broke into a lope in a useless measure to try to avoid as much of a soaking as possible. It was a study in wasted effort. He might as well have been standing beneath a waterfall. He made it to House's place and hammered desperately on the front door.
Gregg must have been waiting for him. The door opened suddenly and James burst into the entry like a wave breaking on a beach. He was aware of his friend's startled reaction at being pummeled backward by his own front door, and of House's clumsy back-pedaling, hopping painfully on his sound leg to scramble out of the way. Then House was propped at an awkward angle against the wall of his own entryway, blue eyes wide, long face filled with surprise and a quick flash of pain. He recovered quickly and wrinkled his nose at Wilson, who had pulled a tidal wave through the front door behind him.
"You're dripping all over my floor," Gregory House observed quietly and unnecessarily. "Where's your umbrella?"
Wilson turned, wiping water from his eyes, his face, and the expensive tailored suit. "Don't start! The car died about a block back that way …" He shivered with the icy cold which had penetrated to his skin, and pointed a dripping finger toward the north.
"I didn't!" House whined defensively. "Looks like your car didn't either. The last time I rode in it, it sounded like an old plow horse with the heaves! When was the last time you took it for an oil change? A tune-up?" There was no sympathy in the mocking voice, but Wilson had not expected there to be.
"Been awhile," he admitted.
"Humph!" House pushed himself away from the wall, turned with some effort and started out in the direction of his living room. "Get in here and get dried off before you catch pneumonia. I don't want you anywhere around me with a snotty nose!" His right hand was empty of his cane, and his limp was ponderous.
Wilson was still shaking water onto the floor of the entry hall. He shed his jacket and held it away from his body on one finger. His dress shirt and tee-shirt were plastered to his slender shoulders. He eyed his friend with an expression that was a combination of amusement and exasperation. "You don't mind being around me when you have a snotty nose! And where is your cane?"
"It's in there. I wasn't expecting you to break the damned door down … and it's not nice to spread your germs to a cripple and make him sick too." The remark wasn't angry, only long-suffering, which, when you thought about it, was almost as bad.
Wilson followed him. "How about calling Cuddy and telling her what happened. I've got to get a towel and dry off. It's cold out there!" Wilson was already dripping water down the hallway toward the bathroom. "We'll have to take your car, House. Are you up for driving? I can drive if you'd rather not …"
House's voice rumbled after him. "Yeah … okay …" Anything else he might have said dangled unspoken in the sudden emptiness of the room.
Wilson entered the bathroom, closed the door and began peeling off the rest of his wet clothing.
When he returned to the living room, House was slouched in his big club chair, legs crossed on the ottoman, the telephone receiver pressed to his ear. Wilson, standing over him in wet tee-shirt and damp dress slacks, leaned down and frowned questioningly into his face. House scowled and waved him away impatiently. Grinning, Wilson turned around and headed for the couch, flopping down with a sigh, still watching as House waggled his eyebrows and rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. He was obviously on "hold".
"What's the holdup?" Wilson wondered aloud.
House's scowl deepened. "They're finding her!" He grumbled. His rubber-mask face was in the process of pulling expressions of impatience, one after another, his mouth clownishly pantomiming "blah-blah-blah …" as he waited for their boss to get to the phone. "She probably got drowned in the same tsunami as you … same archipelago, different island!" He looked at Wilson's soggy clothing appraisingly and cocked his head. "Why don't you go in and dig around in my closet. There's probably stuff in there that would fit you. Pants might be too long, but the rest should work okay. I wasn't kidding when I said I didn't want you catching something 'catching'!" He returned his attention suddenly to the telephone again, and Wilson paused to listen in the middle of getting up from the couch.
House was speaking to Cuddy at last. Wilson could tell by his "fake sincerity" tone of voice. As he listened, his eyes widened dramatically. House was weaving a sob story that might have won the Pulitzer Prize if only he'd written it down.
"Dr. Cuddy?" (Pause) "It's House." (Longer Pause) "Oh really?" (Extended Pause) "I thought that might've been the problem when you didn't come to the phone right away. The same thing happened to Dr. Wilson when he was on his way here to give me a lift to work." (Short Pause) "Yes, I know." (Normal Pause, eyes rolling) "His car let him sit a couple blocks away and he was soaking wet by the time he made it to my place." (Mini-Pause) "The thing is, he slipped on the sidewalk and twisted his back." (Dramatic Pause) "I don't think it's serious, but I have him in my spare bedroom with an ice pack, and I don't think I should leave him alone right now." (Concerned Pause) "What do you mean, kidding? Of course I'm not kidding!" (Pregnant pause with appropriate indignation. How did he do that?)
Wilson blanched at the other man's unrepentant lie, and his jaw dropped. He waved impotently with both hands, making crazy circles in the air in House's direction in a vain attempt to divert him from any further tall stories. House only smiled in an evil manner, turned his head in the opposite direction and kept right on talking. Wilson sighed again and flopped back down on the couch, hunched his body forward and spread both hands, scrubbing at his face in disbelief.
House was winding down, ready to deliver the fatal blow. "Yes, I will. I'll watch him very closely. If he feels better this afternoon, I'll drive him over for an evaluation. Right now I have to find some Tylenol and call the garage to have his car towed. Thanks, Dr. Cuddy. I'll be in touch. You'd better change out of your wet clothes too, before you end up with pneumonia. Wow! Wish I was there to watch!" He leered into the phone and hung up quickly, scrunching his nose and waggling shaggy eyebrows in Wilson's direction.
Wilson took his hands down and stared blank-faced at his friend. "You just screwed me right into the ground, House. You know that?"
House dropped the phone on the table beside him, wincing a bit. He finally had the grace to look away again before his expression began to change into something Wilson did not quite understand for a few moments. "Sorry, but I needed a good cover story for the rest of the day, and you just happened to be handy …" The telephone conversation which had kept him distanced for a time, was over now. He hunched forward in the chair and groaned softly.
Wilson scowled. Huh?
House cringed. Wilson rarely called him by his given name. He was busted. "Sorry. Something happened …" he admitted reluctantly.
"What? What happened?" Wilson was on his feet, already moving across the room. Gregg's face was beaded with sweat that Wilson hadn't noticed before; eyes glittering, expression pinched. Both hands were moving toward his thigh, pressing in on either side of his knee, just below the missing quadriceps muscle. Wilson knelt down by the side of the chair. "What have you done?"
"I got exactly what I deserved for messing around without the damn cane!" A hiss of pain escaped from between his teeth. "Something twisted … in the hallway … starting to hurt."
Wilson's voice lowered nearly to a whisper: "Did I hurt you when I came busting in awhile ago?" He reached out to House's upper arm without waiting for permission.
The warm touch of Wilson's hand drew House's gaze upward to meet the dark frown of worry. "You didn't do anything." He said bluntly. "You can't take the credit every time I fuck up …" His grin was fierce, lopsided and forced.
Wilson moved his palm down House's forearm, reaching tentatively to the spot where his friend's hand cradled the side of the leg gingerly. "Did you pull something? Bang it? What? Let me see!"
House closed his eyes, pursed his lips and drew his hand away from any point of physical contact. "Weren't you going to go get dressed?" He growled.
"Yeah," Wilson said, gently massaging the cramped muscles beneath his palm. "In a minute."
House turned his head away and to the left as far as he could within the limits of comfort while Wilson watched with a frown. Gregg was purposely avoiding his touch, and he could not determine of it was embarrassment, anger or fear, or a combination of all three. He knew this man was leery of being touched, but he did not usually pull away from his best friend. His voice came out low; strained. "Please … don't."
Wilson rolled slowly backward until his ass was flat on the hardwood floor. He withdrew his hand from Gregg's personal space and raked long fingers grimly through his hair. "Why won't you let me help you?"
"I don't need help. I'm … fine."
He was always on the defensive. Wilson was aware that something within the context of that strained plea was missing a beat; something else that House wanted to say, but couldn't bring himself to do so. Silence stretched awkwardly across the intervening chasm. This was something that inevitably happened between the two of them whenever they approached personal contact of any kind, be it conversational or physical. There was always a rigid, invisible barrier that sprang into place like a red flag in a NASCAR race.
Wilson waited out the silent interval calmly. He drew his long legs up against his body and wrapped both arms about his knees, leaning his chin on top. Patiently he watched House's body language as the other man's rigid control began to slip again and he shuddered, releasing some of the tension and again turning his head to risk a glance at the quiet friend who sat unmoving by his side.
"It's okay. Are you okay?"
"Yeah. It's better now."
"Want to go in and lie down awhile?"
"Yeah. Just for awhile. Cane's on the piano … could you … ?"
Wilson was already on his feet. "Sure." He grabbed the handle and handed it across. "Here."
House took it, made to rise. Usually he had no trouble getting out of his chair. He would push up with both arms until he could balance on the healthy leg and transfer his weight back across to the cane. This time he was shaky. He made it up part way, and then fell back with another hiss between his teeth. The vein in the middle of his forehead stood out sharply, throbbing; his face darkened, and he muttered a curse under his breath. Then Wilson's hands were below his shoulders, lifting, and he was up. "Thanks." He limped wordlessly down the hallway toward his bedroom. Wilson, of course, followed.
When Gregg sat down wearily on the edge of his big bed, laid the cane across the quilt and removed his work jacket, Wilson stepped across to remove both articles and place them nearby. Without a word, he eased House onto his back and lifted his legs carefully onto the surface of the bed. He untied the flashy sneakers and removed them gently, then reached for the second bed pillow to place beneath House's painful leg. While all this went on, Wilson could feel the piercing blue eyes following every move he made.
At last, House spoke in a strained voice. "Why the fuck do you put up with me?"
Wilson paused, uncertain what was expected of him. He decided to try the truth. "Because I love you, that's why."
"Say what?" The scowl was palpable.
"You heard me. I don't stutter."
"I just didn't believe my ears."
"Well, believe them! I didn't say I was in lovewith you. I said I love you. There's a difference. Anyway, I'm thinking it's a dose of poetic justice that you told Cuddy I'm the one who hurt my back … and it was really you who did a number on your leg. I'm surprised your nose still fits inside the room."
"Fuck you, Wilson! As soon as you hand me a Vicodin out of the bottle on the dresser, you can leave me alone to try to rest awhile."
The bottle was already in Wilson's grasp. He handed a pill to Gregg who swallowed it dry. "Now shut up and go to sleep. I'm going to dig some dry clothes out of this mess of a bedroom and then go call Vince Crane to send somebody to pick up the Toyota. You need anything from downtown?"
"Nah, only groceries, but I can phone an order to Kauffman's later and one of their boys will drop it by. No sweat." House watched Wilson rummage in the closet and dig in dresser drawers, finally extracting enough apparel to change his clothing from the skin out. "Go stand under a hot shower if you want to. Just don't start sneezing on me later, or I'll have to beat the shit out of you." He shifted himself on the bed, searching for a more comfortable position, and Wilson realized his leg was not okay. He hoped the Vicodin would kick in quickly to bring relief and help relax the rigid muscles.
"Thanks, House." Wilson turned to leave and flipped off the bedroom light, throwing the room into shadow. "It looks like the rain is tapering off a little. It'll probably freeze tonight and make the streets miserable as hell in the morning. I'll call Cuddy later and tell her my back is better and I'll be in tomorrow. What about you?"
"Yeah, my leg will be all well by then too, and I'll ride along in with you. We can lean on each other and feed the hell out of the rumor mill. I won't even have to use the cane! Now go away, willya?"
Wilson grinned through the gloom. "Want me to shut the door?"
"Nah. Don't bother."
"Okay." Wilson started to leave again, but House spoke his name softly. He paused and half turned.
The quiet voice barely penetrated the darkness. "Me too, you know …"
Wilson walked away without looking back, and a shiver of something he chose not to recognize squiggled its way down his spine.