“They said Max has to go,” old Tom said, resigned to defeat.

“But he’s so old!” Clara protested. “You could never rehome him. He’d have to be put down…” her voice broke.

“Damn it woman,” he stormed suddenly, “don’t you think I know that?” He breathed heavily for moments, against the tightness in his chest.

“Can’t you appeal, Dad?” Helen asked quietly, always so blasted nervous around him.

“I tried. Went right to the top. Mister ‘Director’ Reinmarger explained, oh so pleasantly and patiently, that ‘beasts’ have no place in a place of rest. He was very kind, offered me two hours liberty to go with Max to the vet.” Tom brushed a tear away impatiently. “God damn him! I could have taken those little round spectacles he’s always cleaning and rammed them down his… throat… damn…”

“Calm down Thomas Alan Prowdy,” Clara said severely.

He drew several shuddering breaths, looking around the park as he fought against the unrelenting symptoms of age. The view wasn’t familiar. This wasn’t their bench. Hell, he mourned, it wasn’t even their park. That was now a nice, modern sculpture garden – all steel and concrete. Not even a decent piece of bronze or marble.

“What are we going to do?” nervous little Helen asked.

“Do? Do?” he tried to restrain the surge of anger. “Were gonna find us someplace else to live! Damn petty tyrants ain’t gonna tell me to kill Max! No sir! We’ll find us an old-fashioned place, one as cares about people’s feelings!”

“Are there any left?” Clara asked with a sigh.

He mumbled something under his untidy moustache.

“What was that?” Clara demanded crossly (she hated him mumbling).

“There’s nothing good left,” he said hotly but wearily. “I think we three are all that’s left of decency.”

There was a lingering silence as Tom began to wish the bench wasn’t so damned hard. He stroked Max’s head as the mongrel responded to some shift in the mood. The dog was as grey as his master, and walked little better. Despite that. his head spun round and he growled at the sound of a footfall.

“Mister Prowdy?” a young woman in a deep blue uniform bent close and placed her right hand on his shoulder, oh so lightly but clear in meaning.

“Name’s Curtiss,” he growled. Denial of himself – again…

“Yes sir,” she said timelessly. “We’ve got to take you home.”

Tom tried to pull his bony shoulder from her hand. When he couldn’t, tearful panic set in.

“Clara! Max! Helen!” he pleaded.

“It’s OK sir,” the officer said, giving a slight nod to the chubby officer who had hung back. “We’ll get you home. With your friends.”

Something icy cold erupted in his neck. The light faded fast. He tried to protest, to plead with his family. Even as he was half carried into the back of the cruiser.

Doors shut firmly. An engine purred and there was movement.

“I hate these pickup jobs,” the woman said.

“Gotta be done,” her partner said, finishing his drink and tossing the crumpled foil pouch at Tom, who sat helpless, strapped upright, saliva escaping from quivering lips.

Quit that!” she snapped. “You’re a real pig, Holland! Don’t you ever feel sorry for the poor bastards? Hell, they’d be ten times better off in prison!”

“Your taxes not high enough, Purdy?”

Purdy said nothing. Ahead, the drab block of concrete with its ridiculously tiny “windows” (all barred), rose to grey even the gloriously blue Spring sky. She had a mad impulse to turn the cruiser about and race off, to help the old man escape. But then the gates were clanging shut behind them. Guards armed with yard-long shock sticks regarded the officers sneeringly.

“Where we at, Momma?” a plaintive little voice asked from the back seat.

As Purdy started to turn to look at the old man, Holland started coughing, gasping wheezingly past his obesity. Then her eyes met Tom’s. A terrible, cold, rage burned behind those eyes. Purdy wondered where the thin metal rod had come from. And why was he twisting it like that?

Realisation was late coming. The blood escaping from Holland’s mouth. The desperate madness in an old man’s eyes. The bony hand snapping forward to strike her neck in just the right place.

Tom almost made it. The cruiser, though, was too feeble to smash through the gates. But in those last fractional moments, Clara and Helen and good old Max surrounded him, their light and warmth holding him safe against the whispering darkness beyond.

The guards shrugged as the car burned, blistering the paint on the gates. One less useless old space waster was nothing to bother about, and the two cops knew the risks.

Looking out of his office window, Director Reinmarger polished his little round spectacles. His secretary was gathering up papers behind him.

“It is going to be a beautiful day after all, Miss Terry,” he announced, turning with a broad smile.

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