Disclaimer - usual applies.


by Cass

It all started somewhat innocuously - a spate of random, yet mostly harmless practical jokes that plagued Community General and its staff. Personal items would go missing - only to turn up in the oddest and sometimes most embarrassing of places, doctors and nurses alike would don scrubs or uniforms only to discover that the sleeves or legs had been stitched up and the on call beds were rigged to collapse.
The first escalation occurred when a body went missing from the pathology lab. Amanda had taken a short coffee break from a rather heavy influx of corpses after an apartment blaze in order to try to stave off exhaustion. When she returned, one of the slabs was missing its occupant.
Puzzled, she called the morgue. "Have you removed a body from the path lab?" she enquired of the attendant who answered the phone.
"No, doctor," he replied. "We haven't left the morgue all morning. No-one's had any time. Is something wrong?"
Amanda hesitated. She couldn't very well admit that she had lost a body. It wouldn't do her reputation any good and with the way the hospital grapevine worked, it would be all over the building by the evening. She would never hear the end of it and she didn't relish the prospect of being the butt of everyone's amusement.
And one person in particular would tease her mercilessly.
"No," she lied. "It's fine. You're obviously very busy down there."
"Great tactic, Amanda," she mused silently. "Misdirection. That's the way to go."
A sigh echoed down the line. "Yeah, we are. We're hip deep in dead people. I'm not sure if we have the room for many more."
She could sympathise. Glancing around the room, she took in the numerous slabs, all filled with the remains of what had once been vibrant, living human beings. Now nothing more than empty husks, some of them burned beyond recognition.
Her gaze fell once more on the empty table and she frowned. "Well, do the best you can," she said, a little distractedly, then replaced the receiver. Lips thinning with annoyance, she continued glaring at the gleaming slab, almost as though she could will the missing body back onto it.
Not surprisingly, it remained empty.
The shrill sound of the telephone was almost a relief. "Pathology lab, Doctor Bentley speaking," she snapped as she picked it up. "What? When? All right. I'll be right there."
The next moment, she was running out of the lab.

"Where's Doctor Sloan?"
The nurse - whose namebadge proclaimed her to be 'Shannon White' eyed the agitated figure in front of her with puzzlement. "Uh … he's in his office," she replied.
Attractive features furrowed into a frown. "What? What's he doing in his office?"
Shannon's confusion grew. "Uh .. I don't know. I mean … I guess he's working?"
A hand slammed down onto the desk, startling both of them. The offender managed a sheepish smile. "Sorry," she offered. "But … I was told that he was in the ER with Doctor Travis."
"No." The young nurse backed away, a little nervously. She was beginning to wonder if she was in the middle of an episode of 'The Twilight Zone'. "No, the last time I saw Doctor Travis, he was heading off to get some coffee."
At that, eyebrows rose - practically disappearing into the other woman's hairline. "Coffee? He … he went to get coffee? Then - he's all right?"
Yep. Definitely the Twilight Zone, Shannon decided. "As far as I know," she replied. "Um - I can page him for you if you like."
"No, no, don't do that." A slender, long-fingered hand clamped over her own as she reached for the telephone. "I … er … I must have misheard the message."
"I … er … I'll be in the path lab if anyone needs me."
Shannon shook her head as the other woman departed, her brisk stride taking her out of view in a matter of seconds. Then she glanced around a little warily. Maybe she wasn't in the middle of 'The Twilight Zone'. Maybe this was an episode of 'Caught on Camera' instead. But there was no sign of its somewhat manic host leaping out of the shadows, thrusting a mike in her face and grinning at her discomfort.
With a huge sigh, she resumed the report she had been writing before she had been so rudely and inexplicably interrupted, deciding that it wasn't her, after all. The pressure of work in the path lab had finally got to Doctor Bentley. That was the only explanation she could come up with anyway.

Amanda had to resist the temptation to fling open the door to her lab when she returned there a few moments after her futile flight to the ER after receiving the telephone call telling her that Jesse had been in a terrible accident and that Mark was struggling to save him. She had made a slight detour on her journey, peeking into the Doctors' room to find the object of her concern sprawled on one of the couches, nursing a mug of coffee, engaged in conversation with his girlfriend, nurse Susan Hilliard.
The rush of relief she had felt upon seeing that he was all right had quickly been replaced with fury. She was shaking with it as she entered the room. How dare someone frighten her like that? When she found out who had done it, she was going to …
The thought trailed away as her gaze alighted on the slab in the corner.
It was no longer vacant.
Its previous occupant had returned.
It was the manner of its return that had her mouth falling open in shock.
The body was laid out in a prone position, arms at its sides, legs together.
And there was a bright red carnation standing to attention in its posterior.

"It's a really nice colour."
"Shut up, Jesse."
"I'm just saying …"
"Yes. I heard you. Shut up."
"But … "
"You have no idea who would have done this?"
Amanda sighed. "No, Mark. Really. No idea. Happy now?"
The older man compressed his lips. He was finding himself hard pressed to keep his mirth in check but he didn't think laughter would go down too well with the incensed pathologist at that moment.
Jesse, however, seemed to share none of his concerns. Either he was oblivious to Amanda's state of mind or he just didn't care. Either way, he was grinning widely, inspecting the flower with an avid gaze and one finger - which was prevented from touching either the dead flesh or its protuberance by a swiftly descending hand which batted his away.
"Aw, Amanda!"
She wasn't swayed by either the big blue eyes or the pouting lips. She was far too outraged at the liberty taken by whoever had executed this 'joke'. "If you don't stop it, I'll have you barred from my lab for good!" she growled.
The blue eyes grew even wider at this threat. "You wouldn't!"
"Try me!"
Wisely, Jesse clamped his mouth shut on the retort he was about to make and reluctantly stepped away from the body. He couldn't stop the smirk from returning to his face, however, at the sight it presented.
Amanda glowered at him, the expression deepening as he tried in vain to stifle the giggles that were bubbling out of him. Then she heard a similar sound coming from behind her and whirled around to direct her most intimidating look at Mark.
"I'm sorry, Amanda," he managed, through a snort of laughter. "I know it's not funny but …"
"But it is!" Jesse finished off for him.
The pathologist didn't know whether to feel angry or betrayed. In the end, though, as his gaze settled back on the unfortunate corpse and its 'decoration', her fury faded away and she felt her lips begin to twitch. She was determined not to let them see her amusement, though. After all, it was wrong to laugh. Dead bodies should be treated with care and respect, not end up being utilised as a vase.
That did it.
The next moment, her composure slipped completely and she dissolved into laughter too.

Steve gaped at Jesse as he finished relating his story, then turned to Amanda. "Is what he's saying true?" he demanded, jerking a finger in his young friend's direction.
The young friend in question pouted. "Hey! I resent that! I don't lie!"
"No, but you do have a tendency toward exaggeration," countered Steve, smoothly. "Well? Amanda?"
She sighed dramatically. "Yes, it's true. The whole thing."
"Someone really stole a corpse?"
"And stuck a flower in its …"
Backing away a little from the glowering pathologist, he held up his hands in supplication, biting his lip in an effort to stifle his amusement at the image that Jesse had so vividly painted. He caught a glimpse of his father manfully struggling to hide his own renewed glee and knew, without turning around, that, judging from the sounds behind him, Jesse had already lost the battle.
The pathologist heaved a long-suffering sigh as she eyed all three of them in turn. "This is not funny, guys!"
"Yes it is!"
She turned a murderous look on Jesse, which was totally ineffective as he was practically crying with mirth. "You wouldn't like it if it happened to you!"
That prompted a fresh burst of laughter from the younger man. It didn't do much for the efforts of either Mark or Steve's self-possession either as Steve let out a snort and the older man turned away, his shoulders shaking.
"It'll be all over the hospital by tomorrow," Amanda grumbled, picking up a cushion from the couch and distractedly pummelling it into submission.
"It … was all over the hospital … by this afternoon!" managed Jesse, between hiccups.
"Oh, and who was responsible for that, I wonder?"
The younger doctor shook his head helplessly. "Not me!" he gasped. "But don't be surprised if you become the 'butt' of all the jokes over the next few days!"
Steve couldn't help it. He sniggered.
"Steve!" the pathologist protested. "You can't possibly think that's amusing!"
"Oh come on, Amanda, you have to see the funny side of this!"
"No, I don't!"
"You did this afternoon," Jesse chipped in.
"That was then. This is now. That poor man deserved better than … than having a flower stuck in his … his .. you know!"
"Bummer," muttered Jesse, cracking up again.
Steve turned to his chortling friend. "You know, we should hold an investigation," he said. "Maybe 'crack' this case."
"Yeah. He really got a 'bum' deal!"
"I can't imagine how anyone could have the 'cheek' to do it," Steve said.
Amanda threw up her hands in disgust. "Oh, that's it! If you two have quite finished …!"
"Boys! I think that's enough for now," Mark intervened, turning to face the two miscreants. "Leave Amanda alone."
Steve and Jesse looked at Mark, then at Amanda. Her lips had thinned into a straight line and she looked on the verge of tears. Suddenly mortified, Jesse rose from his seat and hurried over to where she sat, giving her a brief hug. "I'm sorry, Amanda," he said. "No more jokes. I promise. And if I hear anyone else do it at the hospital, I'll … I'll set Steve on them!"
The pathologist managed a weak smile. "Thanks, Jesse."
"Yeah, I'm sorry, too, Amanda," Steve said, joining the two of them, and squeezing her hand. "We didn't mean to hurt you."
There were tears in Amanda's eyes as she switched her glance between the two of them, then, suddenly, she bolted out of her chair and ran toward the bathroom.
"Oh damn!" Stave swore. "What have we done?"
None of them could know it, but as she slammed the door to the room, the pathologist had sunk to the floor, jamming her fists into her mouth to stifle her own laughter.
Teach them to have fun at her expense!

Barely had the furore from this incident died down - and Jesse was as good as his word, threatening all who dared to tease his friend with retribution at Steve's hands - than another one occurred.
The unfortunate victim this time was the hospital administrator, just returned from rather difficult negotiations with one of Community General's biggest benefactors. He had arrived at LAX that morning, his flight having been delayed in New York for several hours. What he needed was home, a shower and his bed. Unfortunately there was a Board meeting scheduled for 10:00am that morning and he only had an hour to prepare himself.
As he opened the door to his office, he little expected that he was about to get one of his wishes - except not in the way he had intended.
The muted click as he pushed open the door escaped his notice - and he was totally unprepared for what happened next.
There was a groaning sound, then suddenly, a torrent of water falling upon him. He gasped in shock - the liquid was cold and its assault brutal - before even that sound was cut off by the clatter of something falling - straight onto his head.

Mark had spotted Norman Briggs rounding the corner to his office and had smiled in relief. The other man had called him only a few hours earlier from New York - awakening him from much needed sleep - to inform him that his flight had been delayed and to start the Board meeting without him if necessary. The doctor hadn't looked forward to that particular prospect. They had been forced to deal with yet another hostile takeover bid and they needed all their big guns out if they were to stand any chance of persuading the weaker members of the Board to vote with their consciences instead of their bank accounts.
Therefore, he had been only a few feet away when he had witnessed the event. The stifled gasp, quickly muffled by the bucket as it fell over Norman's head was sufficient to bring him up short. The water pooled around the short, stocky man, his suit completely drenched. He was battling to remove the restriction from his head before Mark had fully recovered from his own shock - then the doctor hurried to help him.

"This is outrageous!" spluttered Norman, as Mark accompanied him to the bathrooms down the hall, not so much storming through the hall as squelching - loudly. Mark had to suppress the urge to smile. He didn't think it would go down well in the other man's present mood. "I have never been … I was never … I …"
"Hello, Norman." Jesse suddenly materialised in front of them, his smile of greeting fading as his eyes widened in incredulity. "Uh … you're wet."
"Well, thank you, Doctor Travis!" The venom in Norman's voice would have warned anyone else off. But this wasn't anyone else. This was Jesse. "It's nice to know you're so observant!"
A snicker broke free, despite the younger man's obvious attempt to smother it. "Uh … what happened?"
"Norman's office. Door. Bucket. Water."
Mark's succinct explanation prompted a further snigger and the poisonous look that the administrator shot him didn't seem to faze Jesse in the least. "Uh … right," he managed. Then … "Uh … I have to go … um … see patients … um .. bye!"
He barely made it round the most convenient corner before he was engulfed in a paroxysm of laughter.
"He has no respect!" whined Norman, as he and Mark continued on toward the bathroom.
Mark nodded sagely as he sidestepped one of the puddles that Norman was leaving, the twinkle in his eyes betraying his own amusement at the other man's appearance. "None," he agreed, briefly, not trusting himself to be able to say more as his lips started to twitch dangerously.
Norman transferred his glare to the older doctor, but as usual, Mark was totally immune. "I'm glad you think it's so funny!" he snapped.
"Well, you have to admit, Norman …."
"I don't think this is funny!" came the plaintive wail. "Look at me! I mean, look at me!"
Mark tried valiantly not to break down. "I am."
"I'm going to find who's responsible for this!" The administrator's voice had notched up several octaves and he was shaking with rage. "And then I'm going to have them fired!"
"Well - I'm not sure it's going to be that easy."
"What? Why?"
"Because this is just the latest in a long line of pranks. Just a few days ago, Amanda lost a body."
"A … Amanda lost a … " Norman stared at him as if he'd lost his mind. "What are you talking about?"
"A corpse disappeared from the pathology lab," the doctor explained, patiently. They had reached the bathroom now and he gently ushered the other man inside. "When it re-appeared it had gained a - um - decoration."
Now Norman was thoroughly confused. "What?"
"It had a carnation in its … um … glutinous maximus."
"Glutinous Maxi …??" The administrator's eyes widened as enlightenment dawned. "Oh my."
"Oh my, indeed."
"Well, that does it. We have to find out who's responsible for this." Norman peeled himself out of his sopping suit jacket, letting it drop to the floor. "We can't have this kind of reckless, disruptive behaviour at Community General, Mark. We simply can't."
"I agree with you." Mark held out a towel for the other man to dry himself off as the administrator divested himself of his equally saturated shirt. "It's liable to get out of hand."
"Out of hand? Out of hand? I think it's already reached that stage!"
Despite the humour in the current situation, the other man had to admit that Norman had a point. No-one had been hurt by these silly shenanigans yet but he had a feeling that could change. They would have to find a way to trap whoever was doing this before things went too far. "Don't worry, Norman," he reassured the agitated man, who was now donning a pair of scrubs that Mark had obtained for him. "We'll find out who's doing this and stop them."

Unfortunately, this task would have to wait. They were already running late for the Board meeting. Settling into their seats moments later, with brief apologies to those already gathered, they noticed that there was a strange undercurrent in the room.
"What?" demanded Norman cantankerously, utterly convinced that they had heard about his mishap and had been having fun at his expense whilst the two of them had been absent. "What?"
"Nothing, Mr Briggs," came the response from one of the members. "Only … "
"Only what? Come on! Out with it!" The administrator was becoming more and more aggrieved. He could almost hear the ripples of laughter.
"Well, it's just that …um … "
Even Mark was beginning to wonder if the administrator's escapade had reached the ears of the Board members. One or two shifted uncomfortably, whilst others wouldn't meet their eyes. "Is there something wrong?" he enquired, calmly. "If there is, perhaps you should just tell us about it."
Someone coughed and several of the men exchanged looks. Then one of them finally spoke up.
"It's just … we appear to be stuck to our chairs."
Mark stared at the speaker uncomprehendingly for a moment. Then, "What?"
"Someone seems to have applied glue to the seats," the man elaborated. His voice had a distinct edge to it. The doctor wasn't at all surprised. Now he recognised the strange mood for what it actually was - embarrassment and not a little anger.
"You're stuck?" he said.
"We're stuck," emphasised the other man, with a pointed look.
Mark shifted around in his chair - or at least he tried to. He couldn't move. With a groan, he twisted around to meet Norman's eyes. The administrator was turning a distinct - and somewhat alarming shade of purple. "Now, take it easy, Norman," he advised. "This is just another joke."
"Another …. ??!!!" The other man seemed lost for words. His anger was palpable - almost a living thing. Mark could have sworn later that he actually saw steam coming out of Norman's ears. "This is too much, Mark! I've had it with this … this lunatic! I want him found and I want him found now!"
Ripples of agreement ran around the table as the other members voiced their own opinions on the matter. Mark sighed heavily. This had definitely got out of hand. "Well, that's all well and good, gentlemen," he said, striving for an equanimity that was becoming increasingly hard to find under the circumstances. "But first, don't you think we'd better call someone to come and free us?"

"They did what?"
"They got glued to their chairs."
"All of them?"
"Yep. Even Mark and Norman. You should have seen them. Their … um . assets flapping in the wind after they'd torn their pants getting free."
Amanda convulsed with laughter. "Oh, Jesse! No!"
The younger doctor grinned. He was enjoying this. Of course, thus far, he hadn't been a target himself. "Yep. I hear the meeting broke up early!"
Amanda had tears streaming down her cheeks. She wrapped her arms around her abdomen. It was beginning to ache. "Oh dear… I shouldn't laugh. But … but … oh, I wish I'd seen it!"
"I wish I'd had my camera," said Jesse, ruefully.
Amanda stared at him in shock for a moment, then dissolved into a fresh round of giggles.

The next day Jesse himself became a victim - by proxy. A rather spectacular looking bouquet was delivered to Susan, purporting to be from her doctor boyfriend. Stunned and delighted, she basked in the admiration of the other nurses who had been present when the flowers had appeared, relishing the envy they expressed over her choice in men and his thoughtfulness.
She was not quite so happy when, moments later, bending to sniff once again at the heavenly fragrance, she found herself the target of a spray of water from somewhere from deep within the bouquet.
Blushing furiously and now the object of quite considerable hysteria from the colleagues who had witnessed the event, she stormed off in search of Jesse, summoning up all the fury and indignation of a humiliated woman in order to give him a piece of her mind.
The young doctor's declarations of innocence went unheeded by the outraged nurse and helplessly, he watched her flounce off in tears, rubbing his smarting cheek, which had taken the brunt of the slap she had inflicted upon him for 'doing something so horrible and mean', as she had put it.
Amanda had sympathised with him when he related the tale to her, but he could see the amusement lurking behind her pitying expression and he had left the pathology lab in despair, wondering if his relationship with Susan could survive.
Trudging into the elevator a few moments later, he allowed his gloomy introspection to consume him, oblivious to the fact that he had company until a voice intruded on his thoughts.
"So, how does it feel, Doctor Travis?"
"Huh?" Jesse lifted his head to discover Norman standing next to him. The older man was studying him with a smile of what could only be interpreted as malicious glee on his face.
"Not so funny when it happens to you, is it?"
The young doctor bit back the retort that had been on the tip of his tongue. Norman had a point. He knew he had taken far too much delight in the other man's misfortune. But the sight of the saturated hospital administrator, dripping all over the corridor, had been very funny. What normal person wouldn't have done the same? "Okay, Norman, get it over with."
"Get what over with?" countered the other man. "Oh, you mean the hysterical laughter? The mocking? The satisfaction at seeing you fall victim to the joker of Community General?"
Jesse uttered a long-suffering sigh. "Yeah. That."
"Some of us are above that kind of behaviour, Doctor Travis," the administrator retorted, adopting an air of superiority that didn't fool Jesse in the slightest. Norman was practically bouncing with glee. "Some of us don't take pleasure in others' misfortune."
Jesse snorted inelegantly. "Right."
"However. I am willing to concede, just this once, that I for one am glad that it's finally happened to you. It could happen to no better person in my opinion. It's justice. That's what it is. And let me tell you something else …. "
The man's words ground to a halt as the elevator did the same, only with a little less of a screech.
There was a moment's horrified silence, then, "We're stuck!" gasped Norman, looking panic-stricken.
Jesse shot him a withering look. "No kidding!" Heaving a sigh, he took the few short steps toward the emergency telephone. Before he could extract it from its place within the elevator wall, however, he found his arm clutched in a feverish grip. "Norman!"
"We're going to die!"
Torn between amusement and exasperation, Jesse tried to extricate himself from the other man's grasp. Sweat had broken out on the administrator's brow and he was eyeing the walls with an air of terror.
"We're not gonna die, Norman," he said, as calmly as he could muster, given that his arm was starting to turn blue from the lack of oxygenated blood as the older man's grip tightened. "I'm gonna phone and let them know we're trapped. Okay?"
Norman swallowed with difficulty. His mouth worked but nothing emerged for a moment. Then, "O … okay. Just … just don't take long!"
The young doctor managed a reassuring smile. "Don't worry," he said, in his best bedside manner. "We're gonna be okay."
"O … okay."
"Okay. Now … um … I can't make the call till you let go of my arm …"

"You don't do small enclosed spaces well, do you?" Jesse ventured several moments later, during which time his companion had traversed the length and breadth of the car several times. The older man was panting heavily and muttering under his breath, slowly disintegrating in front of the young doctor. "Why don't you sit down? The engineer said it could take a while."
"I can't … " The agitated man continued his frenzied pacing, terrified eyes flitting from one corner of the elevator to another. "Is it me or are the walls closing in?"
"It's you," replied Jesse, succinctly. He had settled himself in one corner of the car after finally managing to free himself of Norman's limpet-like grip and making his phone call, preparing himself to wait until they were rescued. But just watching the administrator expend all his energy into being terrified was beginning to wear him out.
Unexpectedly, Norman rounded on him. "Stop breathing!" he commanded.
Jesse blinked at him in sheer bewilderment. "Huh?"
"You're using up all the air!"
"I'm … ?" Throwing a pointed look in the other man's direction, Jesse struggled to keep his composure. He counted to ten. It didn't work. He was experiencing a rather disconcerting urge to wring Norman's neck. "Norman, there's enough air in here for both of us. Stop panicking!"
"I can't help it!" wailed the older man. "I'm claustrophobic!"
"Gee - really?"
Norman glowered at his young companion. "How can you sit there so calmly when we're going to die here?"
Jesse wanted to cry. "Because we're not gonna die," he reiterated through gritted teeth. "We're gonna be just fine. Now, are you gonna sit down, or am I going to have to wrestle you to the ground?"
"You .. you wouldn't!"
The young doctor smiled evilly. "Try me."

"What's going on?"
Mark turned at the question and smiled at his son. He was amongst a group of people who had gathered in front of the elevator bank. The news of the latest incident had spread like wildfire throughout the hospital and he had had to come and see for himself. "Jesse and Norman are stuck," he informed the detective amiably.
Steve's eyebrows rose into his hairline. "Together?"
The doctor couldn't suppress his smile. "I'm afraid so."
"Wow. How long?"
"About thirty minutes now and counting."
"Oh god."
"I know. Poor Jesse. I like Norman a lot but I wouldn't want to be stuck in a small, enclosed space with him for thirty minutes."
Steve shook his head, grinning widely. "So how long d'you think it'll take before Jess snaps?"
Mark chuckled. "Oh - about ten minutes."
"Maybe he could plead insanity in court."
"Or extenuating circumstances," suggested the doctor.
"Poor Jesse."
"I know."

Jesse had stopped counting to ten. He was now aiming at a hundred. It still wasn't helping. Norman was a gibbering wreck in the opposite corner, alternately whimpering to himself and demanding that Jesse stop using up all the air.
The young doctor had thrust his hands into his coat pockets to keep himself from throttling the other man and was praying that they would get out soon - if only to save his sanity.
He had tried reasoning with the hysterical administrator - to no avail. Norman was lost in the fevered imaginings of his phobia, and no amount of reassurance on Jesse's part could penetrate it. The older man was utterly convinced that they would expire before help could arrive and was gasping in huge lungs full of oxygen in order to compensate for his perceived lack of it. His face was beaded in sweat and his eyes darted feverishly around their small enclosure as he rocked to and fro.
It hadn't helped when a deep, groaning sound had issued from somewhere within the elevator shaft. At that point, Norman had decided that the entire car was going to plummet to the ground, killing them instantly. He had surged to his feet, scurrying across to the door, which he had then proceeded to pound with his fists, screaming at someone to let him out.
He had fought off Jesse's attempts to calm him, only subsiding when his hysterical yelling prompted a call from the rescue team who were working diligently to free them. But even their assurances that the two of them weren't about to plunge to their deaths hadn't really helped much. Norman might have ceased his frantic movements but now he was even more terrified.
Jesse felt kind of sorry for him despite the fact that he was still fighting some rather murderous inclinations toward his companion. Claustrophobia was not a pleasant experience - for either the victim or anyone unfortunate enough to be with them, especially in such a small space where there was no escape from each other.
He just prayed that they would be rescued soon, because he wasn't sure he would be responsible for his own actions if they weren't.

After two of the longest hours of Jesse's life, the two men were finally extricated from their prison. The elevator was lowered down to the second floor, where the engineers managed to prise open the doors. No sooner had they done so, however, than they were practically run over by Norman, who barrelled out of the car as though the hounds of hell were at his heels.
Jesse followed more sedately, although he breathed a huge sigh of relief as he stepped onto solid ground once more. He smiled a little shakily at Mark and Steve - who were amongst those gathered around the elevator bank and made his way toward them.
"I see Norman survived, then," was Steve's opening salvo as he greeted his friend.
Jesse shot him a look. "Barely," he ground out. "Man, who knew that he could be so … annoying?" Steve raised his eyebrows at this comment and the young doctor offered him a rueful smile. "Well, you know what I mean!"
The detective snorted. "Yeah. I remember being stuck with him in the Doctors' lounge for a whole fifteen minutes once. I'm still on medication!"
"Now, boys, Norman's not that bad," came the mild admonishment from Mark. He then found himself the recipient of twin looks of disbelief. "Well, perhaps being stuck with him in an elevator for two hours would try someone's patience a little," he amended.
"A little?"
"Scuse me, Doc Sloan?" One of the engineers who had helped free Norman and Jesse approached them "We can't find any reason why the elevator stuck as it did. Nothing mechanical, at least."
Mark's good humour disappeared as he turned to face the man. "You think this was deliberate?"
The engineer shrugged helplessly. "Looks that way. We won't know for sure till we carry out a full test. But if it was then it was a dangerous thing to do. The whole thing could have fallen to the ground floor. Doc Travis and Mr Briggs could've been seriously hurt."
Jesse turned pale at this revelation. So Norman's fears hadn't been as far off the mark as he had thought. He was just glad the administrator hadn't been around to hear this news. "Man, who would do something like this?" he demanded in a strained voice.
"I don't know," replied Mark, grimly. "But it's about time it stopped."

The next couple of days passed by uneventfully - much to everyone's relief, although this lull in activity didn't prevent Mark from launching a full investigation into the pranks that had already been played. The bucket from Norman's office and the elevator were dusted for fingerprints - courtesy of the forensics department of Steve's precinct, as the detective, equally concerned at the inherent danger in the last incident, lent his assistance.
A partial print was found and was input into AFIS. Nothing was forthcoming immediately, however, and both Steve and Mark were forced to bide their time whilst the hunt continued
Enlisting the help of Jesse and Amanda, they delved a little deeper into every mishap that had befallen the staff recently, desperate for anything that would provide a clue to the identity of the person responsible. Amanda contacted the florist who had delivered the flowers to Susan, whilst Jesse questioned those who had been in the vicinity of the path lab the day of the corpse's disappearance.
Their efforts proved futile, however and two days later, the prankster stuck again.

"Doctor Travis! Doctor Travis!"
Jesse spun around at the sound of his name being called so urgently. An orderly was sprinting down the corridor toward him. "What is it?" he demanded as the man came to a halt, breathing heavily from the exertion. "What's wrong?"
"There's been … an accident!" the man gasped. "Dr Littleton …"
"Dr Littleton's been hurt?" Jesse knew the man vaguely. Their paths hadn't crossed much as the thoracic surgeon had only just recently commenced employment at the hospital. His reputation was excellent, though and the young doctor had been looking forward to working with him some day.
"Yes! He … it looks like he fell down the stairwell."
Jesse was instantly all business. "Show me," he commanded.
Following the orderly, he was dismayed to find that the man's interpretation of the facts wasn't entirely accurate. Dr Littleton hadn't fallen down the stairs. He had slipped - courtesy of the grease that had been smeared on several of them, which he discovered as he placed his foot on the first step and nearly took a header himself, only managing to halt his progress by a firm grip on the rail and the fact that his startled yell prompted the orderly to grab onto the back of his scrubs.
"Thanks!" he gasped as he recovered himself, then made his way carefully down toward the sprawled figure of his colleague.
"My pleasure, doc," replied the orderly. "How is he?"
Jesse shook his head as he began his assessment of the motionless man. Littleton's tumble had rendered him unconscious and the angle of his left leg and elbow spoke clearly of fractures. His further descent down the stairs had been prevented only by the rail beside which his head rested. It was difficult to ascertain from a cursory examination whether that was responsible for his insensibility or if he had sustained a knock on his plunge downwards. Squinting upwards, Jesse saw blood staining the edge of one of the steps. That answered that question then.
"Um - Jason?" he said, reading the man's name badge as he addressed him. "Can you go get me a gurney and tell one of the nurses to bring a cervical collar. I'm going to need some help here."
Jason nodded. "Sure thing, doc. Anything else?"
"Yes. I'm going to need a spinal board. I need to find out exactly what we're dealing with here before we do anything like move him."
Turning back to his patient, Jesse missed the orderly's departure as he began to probe Littleton's torso for more serious injuries.
Several moments later, Jason returned with a gurney, a nurse and Mark in tow. He had met the venerable surgeon on his way back from the ER and had explained the situation to him. Mark had immediately decided to accompany him.
"What have you got, Jess?" he demanded, as he entered the stairwell.
Jesse glanced up at his mentor's voice. "Be careful!" he warned, as the older man's foot hovered at the edge of the first step. "Someone's greased these stairs. That's how Doctor Littleton fell."
Mark's face darkened at the information, then he carefully made his way down to Jesse and the other man. "This has gone way beyond funny now," He squatted beside them. "What have you got?"
"Compound fracture of the left ulna, broken fibula, at least three broken ribs and a severe concussion - how serious, though, I can't determine without an MRI. His pupils are equal and reactive but they're slightly dilated," reported the younger doctor, grimly. "Did you bring the cervical collar?"
Mark nodded. "Yes. We'll have to be careful when transporting him onto the gurney, though. How do you want to do it?"
Jesse smiled briefly at the unspoken deferral to his authority in this matter. "Well, it's going to be easier getting him onto the gurney and out from the level he landed on than getting him back up the stairs to the other level. We can go out this floor and get the elevator back up to the ER."
Mark nodded. "I agree. Jason, can you help us, please?"
The orderly came forward, together with the nurse and, working as a team, they fastened the collar around Littleton's neck, manoeuvred him onto the spinal board and then lifted him onto the gurney. The man didn't stir during any of this, which worried Jesse more than he was willing to admit. But he couldn't do anything more for his patient until they had Littleton in the ER where they could better ascertain the extent of his injuries. With a sigh, he took hold of one end of the gurney and they made their way out of the stairwell and through the door into the corridor beyond.

"I just heard about Doctor Littleton. How is he?"
Mark was staring gloomily into his rapidly cooling coffee when Amanda entered the doctors' lounge several hours later, closing the door behind her as she voiced her question.
"He's in a coma," he told her, barely even glancing at the young woman as he recalled the events of the afternoon - his dash to the stairwell, his discovery of Jesse and his patient and their shared frustration and anger as the MRI scan and more thorough examination of their patient revealed the exact nature of his condition. "He had some intracranial bleeding and there was some pressure inside the skull. Jesse had to go in to relieve it."
"Do you think he'll wake up?" Her voice was soft and gentle but even so he winced. The longer he remained comatose, the smaller Littleton's prospects became for recovery.
He swallowed thickly. "I don't know. Jesse's monitoring him. He hasn't left his side."
Amanda frowned. "He's still with him? Why?"
Mark looked up at this, his expression black with fury. "Why do you think? He was the first doctor on the scene. He was treating a colleague - a colleague he respected. You know what he's like. He cares too much."
"And you don't?"
The mild rebuke produced a sad smile. "Yes, I suppose I do, sometimes," he admitted, grudgingly.
"You're too alike."
"You're right there, too." He heaved a huge, heartfelt sigh. "I can't believe that this has happened. In my hospital, to one of my doctors. It's not right, Amanda!"
His voice had risen as his latent anger surfaced. Amanda flinched at the tempest that had turned his pale blue eyes into twin pools of fiery cobalt. She too felt the bitterness of defeat. She had been deeply disturbed by Jesse and Norman's elevator misadventure - once she had discovered how close they had come to being seriously injured. But even so, she had not expected things to escalate quite so quickly. Now she was furious - and scared about what might happen next. "I know, Mark," she said, bleakly. "We have to find some way to stop it - before someone else gets hurt … or killed."
"Don't worry," he said, darkly. "I intend to."

Jesse trudged into the doctor's room several hours later. He had spent most of the afternoon and the entire night sitting vigil beside Littleton. There had been no change in the doctor's condition, however. Deeply discouraged and not a little depressed, he had been persuaded by one of the nurses tending to the other man to take a break. She had been watching him on and off for most of the time he had been there, becoming concerned for the younger doctor's welfare as Littleton remained comatose with no sign of any improvement. Jesse had been unwilling to leave at first but she had used every power at her disposal to convince him otherwise, finally resorting to telling him that she would watch the other doctor whilst he was away. After extracting a promise from her to call him if there was any change - any change whatsoever - he had finally eased himself out of the uncomfortable plastic chair at the man's bedside and had headed unthinkingly in the direction of the ER and its refuge.
"How's Doctor Littleton?"
The sound of the voice from one of the couches brought him up short and he blinked furiously, trying to focus fuzzy vision borne of exhaustion on the speaker.
"Littleton. How is he?" Steve eyed his friend with concern. Jesse's complexion was grey, his usually bright blue eyes shadowed with fatigue and strain. He looked like he was ready to drop at any moment. "Here, have a seat." Without waiting for the younger man's response, he rose fluidly to his feet to slide a hand underneath Jesse's elbow and guided him to his own seat, sinking onto a chair opposite.
The young doctor's voice matched his appearance and Steve bit his lip. His father hadn't been kidding earlier when he had told him that Jesse was taking what had happened to his colleague a little too personally. It was almost as though he was trying to atone for the humour he had found in the jokes when they had first started.
"Jess …"
"Don't, Steve." The inflection in Jesse's voice was a little sharper than he had intended and he smiled sheepishly at his friend. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be. You're exhausted. You had any sleep at all?"
At the mention of the word, Jesse yawned. "No. I … uh .. I just …"
"You stayed with Littleton all night?" Steve's tone held a mild rebuke. "Jesse …"
"I know. I know. It's just … man, I thought this was all so funny at first, you know? But now - now it's turned deadly serious and we don't know who's doing it or how we can stop it."
The cop bit his lip. He too was feeling the frustration of not being able to catch whoever was behind this catalogue of events. He was also worried out of his mind about his father and his two friends. Someone was targeting the hospital staff and there seemed to be no rhyme nor reason to their attacks. They didn't seem to be aimed at any one person in particular, but were random and unpredictable in nature - and that very unpredictability placed everyone in the danger zone - not least the members of Steve's immediate family. "We're trying our best, Jesse," he said.
The young doctor, who had been scrubbing his face with his hands, trying to rub the exhaustion from his eyes, now stared at his friend in abject horror. "Oh Steve - I didn't mean … I'm sorry. I never meant to imply that you were at fault. I'm sorry! I am. I …"
"Hey, take it easy!" Steve cut off his friend's flow of words with a gentle smile and a gentle squeeze of one hand. "I know what you meant. I'm just feeling guilty because we haven't found whoever is doing this. I'm worried about you guys - you know?"
That elicited a tired grin. "Aw, that's sweet."
"Well .. you know … I don't wanna see anything happen to my dad - or Amanda," blustered the cop.
"Or me?" ventured Jesse with a sly look.
"Or you, I guess."
The young doctor nodded, accepting his friend's unspoken concern. Words were superfluous between them. They knew the depth of their friendship. There was no need to refer to it openly. Besides, it wasn't a macho thing to do and, heaven help them, the two of them were nothing if not macho.
"Well, you don't need to worry," said Jesse. "I'm gonna be real careful and I'm sure the same thing goes for your dad and Amanda."
The detective's mouth tightened. "That's all very well, Jess," he replied, tersely. "But we don't know when or where or how this maniac will strike next. How can you be careful when you have no idea what he intends to do? Your entire everyday lives are dangerous with him on the loose!"
"Gee, thanks for pointing that out. I was just trying to be reassuring, you know. It's what doctors do."
Despite the gravity of the situation and his previous words, Steve smirked. "Well, but you're not a real doctor, are you?" he quipped.
Jesse glared at him. "Ha, ha. Laugh it up, big guy. And next time you come in here with a bullet to extract or a laceration to suture, don't expect any anaesthetic to make it easier."
"Yeah. Exactly!"
"So - you feel a little better now?" asked Steve a few minutes later, after they had finished staring one another down.
A wry smile quirked up the corners of Jesse's mouth. "What, you mean after threatening you with the pain I could inflict with these talented hands?" he quipped, flexing the fingers of said appendages "Yeah. A little. Thanks."
"Don't mention it."
A comfortable silence fell, during which time Jesse prised himself off the couch and went to pour two cups of coffee. As he tasted his, however, he made a face. "Ugh!"
"Stewed, huh?" guessed Steve, placing his own mug on the table without even trying it.
"Yeah." The young doctor put his drink down next to his friend's. "I better get back to my patient."
The detective's eyebrows rose. "Hey, wait, I thought we decided you don't have to do that?"
"You decided that. I didn't."
"Jesse .."
"No." The younger man's tone brooked no argument as he forestalled his friend's protest. "Steve, I appreciate the concern, but I have a job to do."
"And your job entails exhausting yourself because you feel some sense of misplaced responsibility?"
The blue eyes flashed with an anger that was quickly concealed. "It's not misplaced responsibility," he said, evenly. "It's my job. I'm a doctor and I take my responsibilities seriously."
Steve winced at the underlying resentment he heard in his friend's voice. "Jess, I never meant to imply you didn't. I just - shouldn't you be home, in bed?"
That elicited a snort of laughter. "I think I can manage to regulate my own bedtime, thanks," Jesse replied, thankfully without rancour. "I'm just gonna check on him then I'll go home. Okay, 'dad'?"
Knowing he was defeated, Steve sighed. "Okay, but make sure you do," he said, firmly. "You - er - you want me to stick around, give you a ride home?"
The younger man's expression softened at the offer. "No, no, that's okay. I'll be fine. But - hey, thanks."
"Hey, no problem. That's what friends are for, right?"
"You're just worried that I really will treat you without anaesthetic next time!"
"No, I'm not. Dad wouldn't let you."
Jesse smiled evilly. "Your dad will never know." And with that parting shot, he was gone.
"I think I'd better crack out the Kevlar," muttered Steve with a rueful smile as he too left the room, to head home to his own bed.

Jesse yawned widely as he climbed into his car. He didn't remember ever feeling so tired. 'Oh, right, when I pulled that 48 hour shift back when I was an intern…' He chuckled as he recalled the increasing exasperation of his friends when he had refused to go to bed because he had a murder to solve. He had never really got to the bottom of that mystery and suspected that Mark knew more than he had ever let on. It still bugged him. He made a mental note to ask the older man about it. Maybe now he was older and wiser his mentor would feel he could trust him with the truth. After considering this for a few more seconds, he smiled wryly. 'Nah …it'll never happen!'
Resigning himself to the fact that the murder in the hospital car park so many years ago would simply have to remain a mystery, he started up the mustang and pulled out of his spot, intent on heading home where he could get the sleep his body craved.
Halfway there, his cellphone beeped. He had an incoming message. Grimacing and hoping it wasn't an emergency calling him back to the hospital, he pulled over to the side of the road to read it.
'Meet me at Hoshimo's for lunch. Susan'
"Aw, man!" he muttered. As relieved as he was to be hearing from his girlfriend, who still held him responsible for the flower incident despite his claims of innocence, that only gave him two hours to get home, change and head out there. And no time at all for any rest. Hoshimo's was their favourite restaurant in the hills and it was a good half hour's drive away from his apartment.
Leaning forward, he rested his head on the steering wheel for a moment, whimpering with sheer frustration. He couldn't cancel the date. Susan was obviously giving him another chance here. If he let her down - for whatever reason, regardless of how tired he was - she might never forgive him. He might lose her. He didn't think he could face that.
On the other hand, could he make it up there safely in his condition? And even if he could, could he stay awake during lunch and make the grovelling apology she obviously expected even though he didn't actually have anything to apologise for?
"This isn't fair!" he whined, oblivious to the curious stares of a couple of passers by who had overheard him. "Damned if I do, damned if I don't!"
"Excuse me, sir?"
His head whipped up at the sound of the voice so close to his ear. Struggling to focus for a moment, his heart sank as he found himself face to face with a young cop, who was eyeing him speculatively. "Uh?" he heard himself say. 'Oh, that was good, Travis. Really erudite. That'll help!'
"Are you all right, sir?"
The cop looked concerned and Jesse managed a small, reassuring smile.
"Uh, yeah, I'm okay, officer. I just … I … " His voice trailed away as he sought for some excuse that wouldn't sound feeble and couldn't come up with one.
Surprisingly, though, the cop seemed satisfied. Easing away from the car, he straightened, pulling his uniform shirt down and squaring his shoulders. 'Rookie' Jesse realised, with a start.
"Okay, then, sir," said the young man. "If you're sure."
Jesse nodded. "Yes. Yes, I'm sure, officer … uh Baines," he said, squinting at the officer's badge, which gleamed brightly in the strong sunlight. "I'll … uh .. I'm just on my way home."
"Right. Well, have a safe journey then, sir."
"Yeah. Yeah, I will. Thanks."

Pulling into his parking spot outside his apartment building twenty minutes later, Jesse heaved a huge sigh of relief that he had made it home without further incident. Once more, he deliberated calling Susan, to let her know that he was far too fatigued to meet her for lunch. Then he envisioned her face as she took such a call -the perfect curve of her mouth thinning into a straight line; those sparkling blue eyes brimming with tears of disappointment - and he knew he couldn't do it. Wearily, he clambered out of his car and trudged up the steps, pulling out his keys as he did so. He fumbled with them a little as his vision clouded over when he tried to unlock his door but eventually, he was able to insert the right key into the lock and twisted it, before stepping inside.
An hour later he had showered and changed into his nicest pair of pants and Susan's favourite shirt. He figured the more advantages he gave himself, the better. He had also drunk copious amounts of coffee in order to give himself a fighting chance of staying awake.
Slipping behind the wheel, he frowned slightly. Something wasn't right. Glancing around the vehicle, he didn't see anything out of place, however. He wound the window down, peering over the side of the door. Nothing.
He shook his head, smiling ruefully. He was beginning to imagine things now. Man, he really needed some sleep. Maybe once he and Susan had eaten lunch and she had decided to talk to him again, he could head back home and hit the sack for a few hours before his next shift.
With that comforting thought, he turned on the ignition, manoeuvred the car out of its spot and headed for the freeway.
He never even saw the telltale pool of brake lining fluid staining the concrete where his Mustang had stood.

Hoshimo's was dark and deserted when he finally arrived there. A notice in the windows read 'closed for refurbishment'. Uttering a curse, he brought the car to a halt and climbed out, walking around the building in case Susan was waiting for him outside.
There was no-one there.
Gradually, he came to the conclusion that this must have been the latest joke - this time at his expense. Steve's warning floated into his mind as he got back into the Mustang and leaned back against the plush leather seat and he smiled. His friend would probably tease him no end about this. Ah well - it could have been worse. At least he hadn't ended up at the bottom of a stairwell with a head injury so bad it had put him into a coma.
The humour faded from his face at that and he resolved to get back into town and check on Doctor Littleton before he got some sleep. His cellphone didn't work up here - he had discovered that once before when he had been late meeting Susan and had tried to call her at the restaurant. He would call from home.
Slipping the car into second gear, he pulled out of the car park and headed back down the way he had come.

He had been on the road again for all of five minutes, manoeuvring the Mustang down the steep incline and round the narrow corners before he realised that he was going too fast. He shook his head in self-reproach. He had allowed his concentration to wander - thinking about Susan and allowing the swell of disappointment he had felt at the knowledge that they weren't about to talk things over after all to dominate his thoughts. Taking his foot off the gas, he settled back to enjoy the ride, then realised that his action had made no discernible difference to the speed at which he was heading down the mountain road.
A niggling suspicion that he didn't wish to acknowledge began to gnaw at him and he shifted the car into a lower gear.
The vehicle increased its speed as the gradient increased.
Now truly alarmed, he pressed the brake pedal.
Nothing happened.
Adrenalin now coursed through his body, jerking him into full and stunned awareness.
The side of the mountain loomed large on the right side of his car and he fought to keep the Mustang from going too close to the edge, but the twists and turns of the road made his endeavours increasingly difficult as his velocity continued to increase.
Heart thumping madly in his chest, his pulse racing, he tried everything to slow down or halt his progress, his hands clutching at the steering wheel in a white-knuckled grip. Negotiating his way around the winding road was becoming more and more dangerous as the bends came up on him faster and faster.
He knew there was a particularly sharp corner coming up soon and tried not to panic as he made all the adjustments he could in order to manoeuvre round it, but before he knew what was happening it was upon him.
Desperately he spun the wheel, trying to steer to the left, but he had already run out of time and road.
There was a moment of silent disbelief as the front wheels left the tarmac, spinning crazily in mid-air, then he had barely enough time to utter a cry of absolute terror as the vehicle's momentum took it over the edge and it plummeted downwards.

An indeterminate amount of time later, pain dragged Jesse from the blissful cocoon of oblivion back into harsh reality. As awareness began to return, he emitted an involuntary groan. The searing white heat that had accompanied him on his journey was threatening to rob him of his ability to think. It coursed through him, igniting every nerve ending, ceaseless and remorseless.
Prising open eyes strangely reluctant to open, he glanced around him. He didn't recognise his surroundings. Momentarily disoriented and confused, his mind struggled to assimilate the information with which it was being presented before memory slammed back.
The brakes.
The corner.
The cliff edge …
'Oh god …'
He shifted slightly, paying for the movement seconds later as the agony intensified, leaving him gasping for breath and teetering on the brink of unconsciousness.
He struggled against the encroaching darkness for several moments before the pain abated, his breathing coming in short, sharp gasps as he kept as still as he could.
Gritting his teeth as fresh pain threatened, he silently cursed the fact that his cellphone couldn't obtain a signal up here. If it had, he might have been able to call someone.
That elicited a harsh laugh, the sound reverberating through his tortured body and aching head.
Having glanced round, he had already ascertained that he was well and truly trapped within the wreckage of what had once been a beautiful vehicle. The pain stemmed partly from the sheared off branch of the tree against which the Mustang had come to rest. The sharp splinter of thick wood had pierced his side and every time he breathed it sent shards of agony slicing through him. Blood stained the passenger seat and he could feel the warm wetness seeping out of him. Fortunately, the branch was well jammed in the wound it had created, effectively sealing it and thereby preventing him from bleeding to death quickly.
His legs were barely visible under what had once been the Mustang's dashboard. He didn't even want to contemplate what was going on there. Crush injuries, maybe, or perhaps he had even severed one or both. He certainly couldn't feel them. He wasn't entirely sure at the present time if this was a blessing or a curse.
His cellphone was nowhere in sight, even had he been able to move in order to reach it. It was probably smashed into tiny pieces somewhere.
The sun was beating down on him remorselessly, exacerbating the pounding in his head and his heart was thudding frantically in his chest, in a desperate attempt to replenish the blood he had already lost.
He didn't even want to think about what organs had been damaged by the foreign object that now resided in his body. He was verging on the edge of hysteria as it was.
He wasn't due to report in for his shift for another five hours. By that time he could be dead.
No-one knew his whereabouts and even if they commenced a search it might take days to find him.
And that was an optimistic estimate.
He may never be found.
He was going to die here. Alone.
He fought back a sob at the thought, trying to concentrate on something other than his predicament.
But the faces of his friends kept floating into his mind.
He wouldn't even have the chance to say 'goodbye.'

Mark walked into Community General that evening for his shift to discover the ER in an uproar.
"What's going on?" he demanded of the nearest nurse, as she ran past him.
"We're overloaded with casualties, Doctor," she told him, breathlessly. "And Dr Travis hasn't turned in."
Mark frowned. That wasn't like Jesse. Utterly dedicated and conscientious to a fault, he would never just 'not turn up' unless there was something terribly wrong. "Did you try contacting him?" he asked.
The nurse nodded. "We've been trying his home and his cell. There's no answer at his apartment and his cellphone is out of area."
The older doctor's worry notched up a tad. That didn't sound good. If Jesse had been able to, he would have answered the phone and the fact that his cellphone was out of reach was extremely disconcerting. In fact there was something very disturbing about this whole thing.
Unfortunately, he didn't have the luxury of time to worry over his young colleague's uncharacteristic tardiness. Someone had to take charge in the chaos that was the ER and as the senior doctor that responsibility fell to him. But he resolved to call Steve as soon as the opportunity arose. Perhaps his detective son could ascertain the reason for Jesse's absence. At the very least he could call at his apartment.
One way or another they would discover what had happened.
Turning back to the nurse, he managed a smile of reassurance. "Don't worry, I'm sure everything's all right." He wished he could believe that himself. "Now, you can brief me on the situation here. We'll soon have everything under control."

Jesse regained consciousness a second time to find that his circumstances hadn't changed. In fact, if anything, they had worsened.
He was beginning to shiver uncontrollably. 'Shock,' he diagnosed, even as the tremors jarred the object impaled in his side, eliciting a fresh wave of intense and prolonged agony.
He couldn't even emit the squeal of protest that rose in his throat as the pain clawed its way upwards, cutting the sound off before it had the chance to emerge.
Tears seeped from his eyes as the torture continued, and his mouth opened in a soundless scream. He couldn't breathe, couldn't think. It was all he could do to remain conscious and he longed for oblivion to rescue him, but it remained stubbornly out of reach, leaving him helpless beneath the vicious assault.
At length, the agony ebbed away to a dull throb that beat in time with his pounding heart and he let out a couple of shaky breaths, not daring to inhale too deeply for fear that it would set the whole vicious cycle in motion once again.
Nausea had begun to churn in his stomach, but he fought valiantly against the desire to throw up, well aware that this would only make things ten times worse.
He was utterly terrified, and trying hard not to be. But he couldn't see any way of his dire situation. The mountain road was not exactly over populated by traffic - especially with the restaurant temporarily closed - and there had been no-one to witness his plunge over the mountainside. He didn't even know how long he had been out here, although he could make an educated guess as he stared upwards at the darkening sky.
Dusk was beginning to fall.
That meant he had been there, skewered by the tree limb, his legs trapped beneath what remained of the front of his car, for at least six hours, possibly more. He didn't even want to envisage what his wound looked like - even if he could see it in the fading light. It felt hot and raw and savage - a result, no doubt of the debris that the branch had taken with it when it had ripped through flesh and muscle. He could already feel the first stirrings of fever from the infection he knew was flaring within him and he wasn't even sure that there wasn't some internal bleeding to go along with the sticky wetness he could feel when he had tentatively touched it hours earlier. That had been a mistake as the brutal pain had sent him plummeting back into an oblivion from which he wasn't at all sure he would awaken.
A sob escaped as he was forced to accept that his situation was hopeless. There would be no rescue, not if his friends didn't even know where to begin their search. And they would never think to look here. Even if they did, he was halfway down a mountainside, concealed by undergrowth and the few trees that clung on to the steep terrain.
'I don't wanna die! Please, I don't wanna die!'
But even as the entreaty echoed within his head, his vision greyed and he tumbled into an inky blackness which was like a little death.

"He's not home dad."
Steve was grim-faced as he relayed the news to his father, who had managed to find a spare moment to call him, begging him to check on their young friend.
Mark's anxiety over Jesse's mysterious absence from the ER had been contagious. Steve had tried not to allow it to overwhelm him, but the memory of his last conversation with friend ran an endless loop in his head and he couldn't help feeling a tinge of anger at Jesse for taking his words so lightly.
"I told him to be careful!" he muttered to himself as he inserted his spare key in the lock at his friend's apartment. "But does he listen to me - ever? No, of course not. Thinks he's invincible - like my dad. I swear, the two of them together will make me old before my time."
His complaints died on his lips as he entered the apartment, to find it in darkness and apparently deserted. The only positive thing was that everything was in place - as much as was evident from the way the young doctor lived - and there was certainly no sign of violence.
So whatever had happened to Jesse had to have happened on his way home.
Except …
Having switched on the light for illumination, Steve caught sight of the shirt Jesse had been sporting the last time he had seen him. Which meant that he had been home.
And had gone out again.
But where? And why?
He had been on the verge of utter collapse at the hospital and his journey home should have culminated in him getting some rest.
But his bed hadn't been slept in. It looked instead very much like a miniature tornado had torn through the apartment, with the rest of the garments Jesse had been wearing strewn across the floor and a towel abandoned on the chair next to the dresser.
"Okay, so he came home, took a shower, got changed and went out - but why? And - more to the point - where?" mumbled the detective as he wandered round, eying the evidence in front of him. "Damn it, Jesse. Where the hell are you and why haven't you contacted anyone?"
"Jesse's normally a better housekeeper than this."
Steve whirled at the unexpected voice. "Dad!" he gasped. "What are you doing here?"
Mark stepped further into the room, his analytical gaze sweeping over the signs of Jesse's presence. "He was in a hurry," he observed, evading his son's question for the time being.
The detective nodded. "Yeah," he agreed. "But where was he going?"
Fingering the towel draped over the back of the chair, the older man frowned thoughtfully. "Damp. That means he came home, took a shower, got changed and left."
"He was meeting someone," concluded Steve, silently berating himself for not figuring that out sooner as his father repeated his own words of a few moments before. "But who?"
The doctor sniffed the air. There was a faint and lingering aroma of aftershave in it. "Susan," he murmured. He turned to face Steve. "Have you talked to Susan?"
The young Sloan looked puzzled. "You think he's with Susan? Dad, that makes no sense. He wouldn't just forget about work to be with his girlfriend."
"I didn't say he would," said Mark, mildly. "But he went to all the trouble of cleaning up after his shift and he even applied aftershave. He would do that if he was meeting her." 'Or thought he was,' he added silently, not wishing to give voice to his suspicions just yet.
Steve shrugged. "Okay. Have you got her number?"
"No. But I can get it from the hospital." With that, Mark extracted his cellphone from his jacket pocket and placed the call.

Forward to part two

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