It's Toast: Chapter Nine

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Ducky watched Tonya walk the wooded path away from the cemetery.

"Aren't you coming?" asked Priya. With Professor Rudolph under medical care, she was headed back to class.

He shook his head. "I'm staying with Tonya."

He let Priya progress in the opposite direction, until she was hidden by trees.

It would take only four or five long strides to catch up, but he lingered, admiring Tonya's long, shiny hair. Hourglass figure. The word came to mind partly because of her generous curves, but also because of the hypnotic way they compelled you to watch her move, forgetting all notion of time, or sense. He jogged after her.

"Are you following me?"

He drew even with her in two long strides. "I hope you don't mind me coming along?"

"No, it's fine," she said, but her crumpled brow said otherwise.

"Do you smell that?" Ducky asked. The acrid smell of burning chemicals wafted toward him on the breeze.

"Maybe I should go alone. My Aunt is kind of a special person, and I don't know how she would feel if I just walked into her place with a stranger."

"Isn't it a store?"

"She lives in the apartment upstairs. I want to see if she left any clue to where she disappeared."

"I get that," said Ducky. She didn't want a stranger to snoop through her Aunt's things. "You hardly know me."

"Don't take it like that." She bit her lower lip.

"It's fine. What do you want me to do, wait outside? Or can I wait in the shop downstairs?" It was breezy out, and since he only wore a sweater to lunch, Ducky wound up chasing Rudolph without a coat.

"You should go back," she said. "Look at you. Your lips are turning blue."

He put a hand to his lips. "Really?" Her eyes lingered on them a little too long. He liked the idea she was looking at his lips. "I feel fine." He stifled a shiver. There was no way he was going back now. Something weird was going on, and he wasn't going to let her walk into danger alone. And what was that burning smell? Definitely not a wood stove.

"Honestly, coming with me is a bad idea," she said.

"What's really wrong Tonya? What aren't you telling me?"

"It's nothing."

"Whatever's up with your Aunt, I won't judge, won't tell, Scout's honour." He felt protective of girls in general, but something about Tonya inspired extra vigilance. She seemed afraid of something, but wouldn't ask for help, which made him even more determined. He would not let her down.

She looked at him, looking at her, waiting for her answer. Finally she said: "Let's go."

In a few quick strides they were almost out of the woods. Through gaps in the trees he glimpsed a two-story building in red brick, like an old farm house. He thought maybe he saw weathered gingerbread, decorating the eaves.

Tonya slowed down and stopped in front of him. "When we get there don't touch anything, and let me go in first." Without waiting for an answer, she continued to walk.

Suddenly, Tonya grabbed her head as if she heard a piercing sound, but Ducky didn't hear anything.

He rushed up to see what was wrong.

Tonya scrunched up her face and went limp. She dropped where she stood, but Ducky caught her. Her propped Tonya against his shoulder, arm around her back for support. "What's wrong?"

Tears rolled down her face and she started to thrash around. Was she having a seizure?

She went still.

"Are you okay?" Ducky asked.

"Yes," she whimpered.

"Let's get you inside the store. I'll call for help from there."

"No!" The power returned to her legs. She leaped out of his arms and rushed away from the shop, hands clamped over her ears.

Ducky hurried after her. "Let me help."

 "Leave me alone!" She broke into a run.

Ducky watched her zigzag back through the woods, wondering if the fence would slow her, but she was over it with a flick of her shiny hair. These country girls were fast and limber, even if they were stark raving loony.

He stood on the path, contemplating her sudden change in behaviour, unsure what to do until he felt the cold again, biting into his back and arms. He jogged after her, toward campus.

#   #   #

Roberto didn't have a lot of experience with ambulances and police. In Lima there were private security companies and private hospitals. The Canadians had free health care, just like Peruvians, although from what he could ascertain from casual conversations, public treatment here was uniformly professional, and medicine wasn't in short supply. Still, he wondered if he did the right thing, entrusting the old lady to a public hospital.

She was frail, hardly thick enough to fill the thin blanket on the gurney in front of him. Most of her face was covered in messy grey hair that had escaped her ponytail. He reached out to take her hand.

"Step back sir." The attendant's voice was loud, his lips set in a frown. The police had asked him to leave her, several times. Roberto stood with his hands at his sides, unsure what to do. The compulsion to look after her was so intense, it was painful.

"Come with us," said the police officer.

"Can't I go to the hospital first, just to make sure she's okay?" He knew he should never argue with police.

"We need you to make a statement." The officer was right up beside him now. His partner was back in the cruiser, watching Roberto closely.

"You say Helene was attacked by a man with white hair, carrying a flamethrower?"

Roberto nodded.

"Catching him is our first priority, before he hurts someone else."

"So I'm not under arrest? I can leave if I like?"

"We want you to give a full description, look at some pictures. We'll give you a ride to the hospital after."

"I have a car."

"I'm sorry. It's part of the crime scene. You have to leave it for now."

Roberto didn't like the sound of that. He wasn't under arrest, but he was forced to go with them anyway. He should want to help them, but he was filled with an uncontrollable compulsion to stay with the old lady.

Suddenly, the ambulance doors swung closed. As it drove away, lights flashing, there was a sharp pain in Roberto's chest, like a cord snapping between him and her. What just happened? He was released. Himself again. The compulsion to protect her was gone.

"I can go now," he told the officer.

He got in the back of the car, mentally preparing himself for interrogation. Police were police, even if they were Canadian. What if he had incriminating chemicals all over his body from the explosion? They had 'caught him' at the scene of the crime, and the real criminal sounded like a made-up story. Who seemed the more likely suspect, a young foreigner in custody, or a limping white-haired pappy who had disappeared?

"Are you okay back there?" the first officer asked.

"I'm fine. Don't worry."

The driver gave Roberto an odd look in the rear-view mirror.

Roberto took a deep breath and tried to let it out slowly. In North America you were innocent until proven guilty, and nobody said the O.P.P. were corrupt; but of all the things that had happened since he flew into Toronto, this ride to the police station was by far the scariest.


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