for Astolat's "Blast from the Past" Challenge
Disclaimer: I don't own any of the characters. This is just for fun.
"But why do I have to do it?" House whined again.
"It's a Peer Review Process. Everybody has to do it," Cuddy explained, for the fourth time. "You've dodged this responsibility for years!" She grabbed his hand and forced him to accept the folder. "Tomorrow morning. Eight a.m. Nikolai Caballero. Oncology."
"Eight a.m.? It's still dark out then! And shouldn't Wilson have to do the oncologists?"
"Peer. Review. Process. Now get out of my office."
"Your file is interesting," House said. He hoisted his bad leg up to rest on the visitor's chair, hoping it wasn't dripping with the tears and snot of cancer-riddled dying people.
"In what way?" countered Dr. Caballero. Greg supposed that carefully noncommittal affability of tone was a big plus in the field of oncology. The guy's good looks and tactful demeanor might explain his unusually high Patient Evaluation Scores. He was freakishly pale, though, and had dark shadows under his eyes -- what self-respecting doctor let himself get so anemic? Word on the corridors was that he was always in before sun-up, and never left work until late. Greg hated guys like that. Show-offs.
"Your terminal patients all die a week early."
Caballero took a beat too long to answer, smiling, "That seems like an unsupportable conclusion, Dr. House."
House squinted at him. Eight o'clock really was too damn early, especially when his damn leg had kept him up half the night and the kids wouldn't be in to make the coffee until almost nine. On the other hand, insomnia and boredom had driven him to the scrutiny of Caballero's records, and they were definitely a puzzle.
"You know what's even more interesting? Well, your reaction just now, but also the way that your Patient Evals are just enough higher than average to perfectly balance out that one-week survival time deficit, making your overall stats perfectly average. That's elegant, really, and I wonder how you did it."
Caballero closed his eyes for a moment and sat perfectly still. Then he opened his eyes and skewered House with them. They seemed to literally glow.
"Hand me the file." Caballero's voice was strangely deep, almost sonorous. House felt his pulse thundering in his ears. That was interesting, too, interesting and terrifying.
House found himself handing over the file.
"Very good. Do you possess any other physical documentation relating to me in any way?"
House silently shook his head. He could not tear his eyes away from Caballero's, and he found he was breathing in synch with the heartbeat that seemed to fill the room.
Caballero sighed. "You came in here this morning, and I informed you that a family emergency requires me to tender my resignation, effective immediately. I'm leaving now. You will stay in that seat, resting comfortably, for thirty minutes. Then you will inform Dr. Cuddy that I'm gone. You will not remember anything unusual or 'interesting' about my practice, or my patient statistics, or this conversation, in any way. Do you understand?"
House nodded again.
"Time to make a new start. Again," Nick muttered. He put on his trench coat and dark glasses, and crammed a wide-brimmed hat over his dark gold hair. "Good-bye, Doctor Nikolai Caballero," he said bitterly, and left.
House sat quietly for half an hour, then got up and went about his day.
"Nick Caballero quit?" Cuddy seemed strangely incredulous. "Why?"
"Family emergency," House said, leaning back in the chair and twirling his cane. "This is why sensible people don't have them. Families."
Cuddy did that teenage eye-rolling thing that was far cuter than she thought it was. "Thanks for clearing that up for me. Fine. Gimme back his file, and take that one on the corner of the desk. He hasn't had a Peer Review since I've been here."
"I don't have the file."
"What happened to it?"
"Mmmm. Not sure."
"Whatever. Go. You're due in Pediatrics at ten-thirty."
"You'll make this quick, I trust, Dr. House? I'm a very busy man."
"I can see that. From your file." House brandished the papers, and watched his irritated target puff up his moustache like a walrus. "You've been too busy to participate in the Peer Review Process for more than ten years. Congratulations on that, by the way."
"Can we just get this over with?"
House riffled through the file again. "This is interesting. How come you never prescribe any drugs?"
"I beg your pardon!"
"It's right here. Either you never prescribe any meds, interesting, or you prescribe without filling out any of the required paperwork, illegal. Which is it?"
The moustache was definitely cool, very expressive. It looked even bigger and bristlier when the guy rose to his full height like that. Maybe House should try growing a big bushy 'stache. The thing almost seemed to have a life of its own. On the other hand, it looked like it might be a lot of work.
"Now see here!"
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a woman's voice called, "Calling Dr. Bombay! Calling Dr. Bombay! Please respond to this emergency right away!"
"Wonderful!" Dr. Bombay exclaimed in exasperation. "Well, that tears it! Dr. House, be so kind as to tell Dr. cuddy that I quit!"
The phantom voice repeated itself. "Calling Dr. Bombay! Calling Dr. Bombay!"
"I'm coming! Keep your hair on!" With an elaborate gesture and a puff of smoke, Dr. Bombay disappeared.
House nodded to himself. That explained it. "Witch doctor," he muttered as he heaved himself up from the chair.
"What?" Cuddy squawked. "Bombay quit, too?"
"Not my fault. Who the hell hired him, anyway?"
"I don't know. It was before my time." Cuddy rummaged in a small pile of folders and handed him two. "Here. Nobody ever seems to do Peer Review for the pathologists."
"Of course not. That basement is creepy."
"Be brave. And get out."
"What, no appointment time?"
"I'm pretty sure they'll make time to talk with you in the basement. Now scoot."
"That's my name; don't wear it out." House stopped and let Wilson catch up with him.
"What are you doing in the basement?"
"What are you doing in the basement?"
"Keeping on the right side of the biopsy guys. And I asked you first."
House waved his little handful of file folders. "Peer Review Process."
"Oh, God." Wilson looked genuinely horrified.
House smiled. "I'm two for two for the day. Two interviews, two resignations."
"Wow." The horrified expression gave way to one of genuine respect. House liked it. "Who are you seeing next? It's not Fleischman, is it? I really do need these biopsy results right away."
"Fleischman's not on my list. Just as well; he's never done anything interesting in his life, if you don't count working in Alaska for a couple years when he was a kid. Nope, my next vict-- I mean subject, mommy-tracked her way over from the FBI."
Wilson's eyes widened. "Oh? Well, watch yourself. I'm pretty sure she knows forty ways to kill a man with her bare hands."
"What, did you guys date?" The expression on Wilson's face made him chuckle. "Relax. Just a friendly little Peer Review."
Wilson smiled, shook his head, and left.
"Are we done here, Dr. House? I really do have quite a bit of work to do." It was the first sign of any kind of spirit since the conversation had begun. Her answers had all been textbook perfect; her statistics and metrics of all kinds were high-normal in every respect. The only way that House had been able to avoid dying of boredom was by needling her and watching the subtle response of building rage that her redhead's complexion was unable to hide.
Since he'd asked all the required questions twenty minutes before, and he was starting to get hungry for lunch besides, House made only a brief show of consulting his notes. "I suppose that will do for today," he said, in as obnoxious a tone as he could manage. "Please make yourself available for further follow-up questions over the course of the next two weeks."
Dr. Scully's angry sigh was beautifully muted. "Of course," she said quietly.
House made it all the way to the elevator before collapsing against the wall in helpless laughter. Why had he been so reluctant to participate in the Peer Review Process again?
House went over the next file while he ate. He made sure to get as much barbecue sauce on the folder as possible, hoping that the color would give Cuddy a start before the aroma tipped her off that he wasn't returning her paperwork covered with blood. The cafeteria's barbecue sauce was pretty damn bland; it might work.
He looked up. The kids were there. He greeted them. "Cameron. Foreman. Fluffy."
Chase's eye-roll was almost as cute as Cuddy's.
They all sat down at his table. That'd teach him to acknowledge people's existence. "We haven't seen you all day," Cameron began.
"Thanks for that, by the way," Chase muttered. Foreman laughed quietly.
Cameron glared at them. "You weren't in the clinic, or Oncology, or--"
"I know where I wasn't. Is there a point to this?"
Heads she's hurt, tails she's exasperated. Heads. "I just wondered if you were okay."
Meanwhile Foreman had pulled the file folder over to his side of the table. He frowned at it for a second, thinking, then smiled. "You're doing the Peer Reviews this month?"
Month? Jeeze! House had had no idea this stupid deal was supposed to go on for that long. "Of course!" he said sanctimoniously. "Everybody does their part. That's what makes the Peer Review Process both fun and fair."
Foreman smiled and shook his head. Chase snickered and looked down at his plate. Cameron switched over to exasperated, which was a much better look on her than hurt.
House gathered up the fragrant file folder. "Now, if you'll excuse me, some of us have valuable work to do." That got a giggle even out of Cameron, and he left the cafeteria amused and content.
This was undoubtedly the room that gave PPTH's basement its reputation. The walls were lined with shelves, and the shelves were filled with specimens. It was almost unheard of for a modern-day pathology lab to store these hundreds of jars of preserved organs and tissues, embryos, tumors, dusty obsolete samples of every disgusting description.
They were pretty interesting, though, and House was so absorbed in looking at them that he jumped a mile when a grizzled hand touched him on the shoulder. The damn leg reminded him forcefully of why he didn't let himself get that distracted in a strange room anymore, and it took him a moment before he had sufficient control of his face and his voice to turn on his accoster and snap, "Don't do that!"
"Sorry." The lumpy old pathologist must be pushing ninety, and his voice sounded like a truck driving down a gravel road. "Can I help you with something?"
"Peer Review Process," House said, holding up the folder.
"Christ," the old man grumbled. "Might as well come back and have a seat."
House's leg appreciated the offer, but his pride hated that this ancient relic of a former regime seemed to be exactly as infirm as he was himself.
"Why do you keep all these specimens? Have trouble figuring out the computer systems?"
The old guy snorted. "You want coffee? I've got coffee here somewhere."
House looked around while the other man made up two cups of instant coffee. Yeah, creepy was the right word, but there had to be a reason for it. Everything had a reason.
"Anybody been complaining about the way we're keeping up with the computer?" he grated, sinking into a chair and handing House a cup.
House opened the file, but he knew the answer already. "No."
"There you go, then." The old man drank some of his cheap disgusting sludge. "Why are you really here, Dr. House?" His sharp sideways glance reminded House that this was another puzzle-solver, a guy with a brilliant bulldog reputation -- himself, if he lived another forty or fifty years. Which he wouldn't. The tiny flare of anger that thought produced was almost completely drowned by a sudden spasm of goddamn leg. He covered it by looking through the folder, and a phrase in the guy's employment contract caught his eye.
"Did you know that you were contractually obligated to retire at age eighty?"
He lowered his eyes and chuckled ruefully. "I was starting to think nobody remembered that. Maybe hope's a better word." He got stiffly up from his chair and started putting things in a briefcase. Then he stopped and looked at House dead on. "I was with the L.A. County Coroner's Office for years and years, you know."
He looked around the huge cluttered room and sighed. "You never know when the actual physical evidence of a thing is going to be what you need. Records, whether paper or electronic, only tell you so much -- only tell you the things you thought to ask at the time. Preserved tissues, even with the imperfections that preservation inevitably induces, can answer so many more questions -- questions we don't even know to ask yet. This room, the contents of this room, have proven time and again that research will never be --" He stopped his passionate speech and coughed for a while. When he stopped and caught his breath, he went on. "I hope the new guy won't throw everything out. Tell him, would you? At least make him give the biological research guys, over on the university side, the chance to take them beforehand. I'll have all my personal things cleared out of the office by the end of the week, if that's soon enough?"
Without waiting for an answer, Dr. Quincy left.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" Cuddy snapped as soon as House wandered in to pick up his last Peer Review folder of the day.
House stopped in the doorway and looked behind him? "Me? What did I do?"
"That's another good question! You know, Dr.Dana Scully has been shot in the line of duty! She's been held hostage, she's been rendered comatose, she's been infected during germ warfare terrorist attacks! And none of that ever was enough to make her quit the FBI! One conversation with you, though, and she sends me her two weeks' notice! 'Intolerable working conditions!' What the hell did you do?"
"Nothing! Maybe she just can't stand the quiet. Plus, that basement is awfully spooky; you really should look into..."
House trailed off as Cuddy's latest boy-secretary minced in with another piece of paper, which she picked up and read. She closed her eyes tightly and her lips even more tightly, took two deep breaths, and then said very calmly, "Did you tell Dr. Quincy that his age forces him to retire?"
"It's in his contract. Eighty."
Cuddy Death Glare. Eek. But her voice was still extremely calm. "You lived with a lawyer. How could you not know that employment contract stipulations like that have been unenforceable for the last fifteen years?"
House opened his mouth and then closed it again. Cuddy was still glaring at him. "If it's no longer valid, shouldn't it have been taken out of the contract?" he tried.
"Nobody's looked at it since it was signed! Why would anybody have looked at it!?! Have you ever heard the phrase 'Institutional Memory'? That old lech is vital to our Pathology department here, and to the university's bio-research guys, and he could sue! Now I'm going to have to wine him and dine him and make him change his mind! And the cost of the restaurant is coming out of your paycheck!" She was really exploding. Even House was smart enough to get out.
But not smart enough to resist one last crack as he grabbed the day's final file off the corner of her desk and skedaddled. "Wear your red blouse!" he called, making va-va-voom gestures with the folder.
"Out!" Cuddy yelled, but he was already in the corridor.
Hematology was lighter and brighter and better in every way than the basement Pathology department. House's next target was a respected research scientist from Canada, who saw a few patients only in the mornings, so House felt justified on dropping on her office appointmentless at the end of the working day. Maybe his afternoon visit with Coma Guy (NASCAR should wake him up if anything would, right? He was just being helpful.) might have put him slightly after working hours, actually; the Hematology reception desk was unoccupied, and there wasn't really much of anyone around. An office door was slightly open, though, so he went in to poke around.
A middle-aged woman with bushy hair and a scarf around her neck looked up at him with a friendly smile. "Can I help you?"
House waved the folder at her. "Peer Review Process."
"Come on in. Take a load off."
House couldn't quite repress the relieved sigh as he sank into a chair. The end of the day was a bad time for the damn leg. Of course, lately it seemed there was nothing but bad times for it. A soft hassock unexpectedly slid out from under the table and thunked into his chair leg. She'd kicked it to him without even looking up from her paperwork.
"Thanks," he said dubiously.
"De nada. I'll be done with this in a couple of minutes."
House spent those couple of minutes looking curiously about the office. He'd thumbed through the file during the beer commercials, and knew that Lambert had gone into hematology after her work in the medical examiner's office in Toronto had led to an unsolved throat slashing and a lengthy coma. It wasn't hard to deduce that the scarf was a memento, undoubtedly worn to hide some hideous scar. In addition to the normal books on the shelves, there were a few antiques -- a jade cup that looked PreColumbian, and an archaic wooden cross.
"You're Dr. House, aren't you? I've seen you around." That smile was back, just a little mocking. "So. What's a Peer Review Process?"
Nobody else had asked that question. House found himself smiling back at her. "I'm not entirely sure," he had to admit. "There's a bunch of questions I'm supposed to ask, and review your file, and Cuddy wouldn't let me get out of it."
"Oh, a Peer Review Process." Lambert nodded solemnly, then laughed. She had a nice laugh. "Is there anything in there you wanted to ask me about?" she asked, indicating the file.
"No, it all looked pretty, um, it looked fine." House thought about asking Dr. Lambert out. He looked back up from her file, and she was smiling still, and she was actually a fine looking woman, not too young, not too old... "Cuddy actually would have done better to let me skip it. I've talked to four other doctors today, and they've all decided to quit."
"Because of talking to you?" There was that nice laugh again. "Come on, House. You're not that bad. Are you?"
"Well, I did pick on Dr. Scully, I admit it. Who'd have thought she'd be so thin-skinned! And I was wrong about Dr. Quincy's contract, but Cuddy will get him to come back, I'm sure. Bombay didn't even really quit; he just took off. It could have been anybody talking to him at the time. And Caballero, I'm not exactly sure..." House frowned; it was weird to have trouble recalling a conversation he'd had only that morning. Very weird.
And the weird just kept on coming. Dr. Lambert was staring at him. Her eyes were huge, and her face was pale. "Caballero?" she asked quietly. "Let me guess -- Nick Caballero?"
"Nikolai Caballero, Oncology. You know him?"
"Bastard!" she whispered explosively. "I knew --" She took a breath and composed herself. "Where's this Nick 'Caballero' now?" The scorn she put into the word "Caballero" was impressive.
"He left. Um. I went in there this morning, and he informed me that a family emergency required him to tender his resignation, effective immediately." Huh. Was that really what happened?
"What time?" Lambert was already standing, shoving things into her big canvas handbag. He noticed she was taking the jade cup and the cross, but none of her papers.
"Eight o'clock." House frowned again. "or was it eight thirty?"
"I might still be able to -- I can't believe he's been right under my --" Dr. Lambert stopped muttering and packing, and turned to face House again. "Thank you very much, Dr. House. Please tell Dr. Cuddy that I'm sorry to leave her in the lurch like this, but I don't imagine that I'll be coming in tomorrow. Odds are that I won't be coming in anymore, period. It was nice meeting you. Good bye."
"...So Cuddy said I don't have to do the rest of my month of Peer Reviews," House finished up, setting his beer down on the coffee table.
"Amazing," Wilson replied. "Five for five. I've never heard of such a thing."
"Well, when you've got it, you've got it." House stole a corn chip from Wilson's bag. "Peer Review Process, my ass," he muttered.
Wilson laughed. "You are without peer, House."