Authors: Rob Cornell
Tags: #magic, #horror, #paranormal, #werewolves, #action, #thriller, #urban fantasy
The Lockman Chronicles #4
For Beth. We'll do this yet.
Hoyt Owens was trying to slip his Valentine into Shanna’s purse without her seeing when the monster scream echoed down the main hall of the hospital floor. The sound sent a static chill over his skin, and he jumped, making him lose his grip on the red envelope, which fumbled away from his fingertips and slapped to the tiled office floor right at the foot of Shanna’s chair.
She started as well, her hand going to her chest, planted flat between those healthy pair of mams Hoyt had imagined seeing in the flesh a thousand and one times, usually while he lay awake and alone in his apartment, the silence keeping him awake as much as any incessant sound would.
Like that screaming.
Shanna didn’t even notice the card or Hoyt’s awkward reach toward her purse hung on the arm of her swivel chair. She shot to her feet and, hand still over her heart as if ready to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, ran for the office door.
Hoyt, on the other hand, sat frozen a moment, his own heart ramping down to normal speed. Screams, shouts, cries, and whatever other harsh sounds a voice could make weren’t uncommon on the inpatient mental health floor at Alliance Hospital in Detroit. Sometimes they caught you off guard enough to startle you—
especially if you’re doing some dumb thing like trying to sneak a Valentine into the purse of a gal didn’t even know ya
—but Hoyt had worked as an orderly here long enough to get over any kind of startle pretty quick.
Before he followed after Shanna, though, he scooped up the envelope from the floor, gave her purse a longing look, then stood and jammed the envelope in his back pocket.
The screaming continued, getting more ragged and pained, as Hoyt made his way out of the Glass Box, as they called it, because the office had more windows than walls to keep an eye on things. Several patients stood outside their rooms, lining the halls like sleepy-eyed zombies, some made that way by the hour—3 AM—others always looking that way because of whatever the docs put them on.
The screams, no matter how common, never got old with the patients. Sometimes Hoyt thought they liked to see a fellow resident flip out simply because it made them feel better about their own conditions. Though probably it was no more than the same brand of human nature that made a man slow his car down to peer out at a wreck on the side of the road. Hoyt could get real philosophical about such things. He didn’t have much else to do when he returned to his empty apartment after dawn each morning, while the rest of the world got ready to go to work and he had to pull all the shades to make an imaginary night.
By the time Hoyt made it to the room where the screaming came from, he found Shanna already trying to hush the boy. His stomach twisted at the sight of the kid. Should have figured it would be Ryan.
Kid had been on the floor for what? Three years, off and on? No meds, except the kind that turned you into a drooling stump, could keep this kid level. Outbursts were common. And Hoyt had heard a lot of nonsense come out of patients in the six years he’d work on this floor, but the shit came out of that boy’s mouth? Seriously dark. Hoyt recalled one time, during lunch, the boy had pointed at the raspberry syrup on his cheesecake, said,
That looks like the blood from a demon’s cunt
, as deadpan as if he’d shared a baseball statistic.
Hoyt had laughed, that nervous, bubbling kind of laugh that could make you sound as cracked as the patients. Then he had promptly found himself another place to be.
Wasn’t just the things the kid said, though. You got near him, and this coldness came off him like the air from an open freezer. Hoyt wasn’t very religious, but he was damn sure if he ever got too close to that kid, the boy would suck his soul clean out of him. If not for Hoyt’s own sense of responsibility for the other kids in the hospital, he might have put in for a transfer from the adolescent to the adult floor, just because of this one patient.
Ryan sat on the edge of his bed, rocked from side to side like a boatman out to sea. His mouth hung open in a wide O, lips curled over his teeth, a foamy saliva goatee on his chin. But his eyes stared ahead with a wicked clarity and locked onto Hoyt when he came into the room.
Shanna had her hands on his shoulders, trying to hush him with no effect. He didn’t seem to notice she was there. Instead, all his attention had welded to Hoyt. The weight of the boy’s focus stopped Hoyt just inside the door, as if its intensity had turned it into a solid force.
“You,” the boy said, his voice a bullfrog croak.
Ryan’s roommate, a lean sack of bones, pulled his bedcovers over his head so that only his white knuckled fingers gripping the sheets remained visible.
Hoyt absently touched his chest. “Me?”
The boy shoved Shanna violently aside, the move so sudden, she never had a chance to brace for it. She tumbled off the bed with a surprised shriek. Her head knocked against the tile floor and made a hollow sound that echoed in Hoyt’s ears and made his vision tint red. He’d never felt rage against a patient before. Annoyance, discouragement, frustration, yes. Never rage. Yet now, he balled his hands into fists and seemed to glide across the room as if carried by a conveyor belt without any conscious effort.
Ryan stood to meet him.
“Hoyt, don’t,” Shanna shouted from the floor, though she sounded a hundred yards away. “I’m all right. Don’t.”
The conveyor belt stopped with Hoyt an inch outside of arm’s reach. He couldn’t pry his fists open, though. He would keep those, just in case.
The last shift team, due to budget cuts, made a typical skeleton crew look fat in comparison. Shanna was the nurse on duty. Then there was Hoyt. They had a rotating doc who worked both adolescent and adult floors. Normally, another orderly, though Shultz had called in sick for the fifth day in a row and Hoyt didn’t figure he’d be coming back to work—the new guy couldn’t take the stress. Finally, they had a security man, Burlowski, who stood about six-two, had to weigh three hundred pounds, and was shaped like a bowling pin. Burlowski spent a lot of time on the can due to his IBS, though Hoyt knew for a fact the sasquatch of a man often spent his potty time flipping through back issues of
Guns and Ammo
as if it were porn.
He must have pulled up his britches and set his magazine aside, though, when the screaming started. Hoyt could hear the rhythmic chink of Burlowski’s keys clipped to his belt as he marched down the hall. He couldn’t move too fast, but his size could overwhelm even the feistiest of patients in the middle of a fit.
Ryan gave Shanna a disdainful glance. “You’re far from all right. The Return will not save you. You’re just as much fodder for the darkness as the rest of these swine.”
None of those words, at least in that combination, made a speck of spit sense to Hoyt, but for some reason it ruffled his hackles. “Don’t talk to her like that.”
“Hoyt, stop it. What are you doing?” Shanna got up on her knees and rubbed her head. Her hand came away smeared red. She seemed to wince more at the sight of the blood than any pain she felt.
Seeing Shanna’s blood made Hoyt’s own blood simmer. His fists squeezed so hard, his fingernails cut into his palms. He tried to get a leash on his breathing and slow it down, but his temper proved too slick.
What’s wrong with me? I’ve never lost it with a patient. He’s just a sick kid. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.
But as Ryan’s eyes widened—
While Burlowski’s keys
leisurely down the hall.
—and the boy peeled his lips off his teeth like a grinning dog, Hoyt had a second thought.
He’s making me feel this way. Somehow he’s driving me to it.
“What’s the matter, Hoyt?” Ryan asked. “Too scared to protect your woman?”
Hoyt’s fist lashed out all on its own. The vibration of the boy’s jawbone against Hoyt’s knuckles felt as satisfying as a kiss from Shanna might, like something he’d waited half his life to feel.
The boy’s head snapped to the side, but he didn’t stagger. The expression on his face didn’t even change, though blood dribbled from his lip and some of it smeared his grinning teeth.
“Hoyt,” Shanna cried. “Stop it.” She tried to get to her feet, but wobbled and dropped back to one knee.
The kid had hurt her worse than it looked. Maybe gave her a concussion. Hoyt would kill him for that.
Yes. His hand had already gone to work with the task. They wrapped around the boy’s skinny neck and squeezed, his thumbs pressing into the boy’s Adam’s apple. He would crush his windpipe. He’d never been in a fight in his life, if you didn’t count restraining violent patients, which was about keeping them from hurting themselves as much as others. Hoyt had never in his life actively tried to do another harm, though Lord knew the way his father and brother had treated him before he moved out had given Hoyt a full docket of reasons.
Never mind all that. Right now, his lack of brawling experience didn’t matter. He knew he could kill this boy. It would be so easy.
That frigid feel Ryan gave off intensified. Even while Hoyt sweat at the effort of strangling the kid, his skin turned to gooseflesh. He thought he smelled the old beef Pop would keep too long in the meat locker at his butchery, that whiff of cold rot that always made Hoyt queasy whenever he went to work with his dad.
The boy’s eyes bulged, lines of red all through the whites. His stupid grin remained.
What am I doing? My God, what is this kid making me do to him?
He was so caught up with the boy, Hoyt didn’t hear the jangle of keys behind him until a second before the fat arm wrapped around his neck and pinched closed at the elbow like a fleshy nutcracker.
Burlowski’s weight advantage allowed him to lean back and lift Hoyt off his feet. The choke hold Burlowski had on him cut the blood flow to his brain, and a dark gauze quickly ran across Hoyt’s vision.
Hoyt let go of Ryan.
Burlowski dragged Hoyt back as far as the door before releasing the choke hold, but he kept a grip on Hoyt’s arm. Shanna still tottered on one knee while trying to get herself back on her feet.
Ryan’s face changed all at once. His grin broke open to bellow another scream, the pitch so raw it didn’t sound human. He grabbed at his hair and ripped two fistfuls free. Dots of blood welled up on his scalp. “You could feel it.” His gaze speared through the center of Hoyt’s soul. “You could feel the darkness, couldn’t you?”
Hoyt nodded. He knew the kid was talking crazy—though Hoyt hated using that word, for all the baggage it unfairly foisted on sick folks. In this case, it was apt.
But the boy was also talking sense. Hoyt
felt it. He had thought it was coming from the kid, but maybe that was just because the kid was standing in the middle of it.
“It made me angry,” Hoyt said.
“What’s come over you, Hoyt?” Shanna had finally made it to her feet. She held her hands out at her sides as if balanced on a small pedestal, nothing like the big one Hoyt had put her on. But damn if she didn’t look as beautiful as ever, even with the color drained from her face and that frightened, weary look she gave him.
“I don’t know.” Hoyt pointed to Ryan. “Ask him.”
“Bill,” she said, looking past Hoyt, her expression going all business. “Can you call the doctor? And help Hoyt to a seat.”
“No.” Ryan’s voice wavered with panic. He opened his hands. The hair he tore from his scalp fluttered to the floor like small chaffed wheat. “He felt it. He knows. It’s strong. Getting stronger.”
Shanna reached a hand out to Ryan, but she didn’t look steady enough to approach him. “Easy, hon. We’ll get the doc up here, get you something to make you feel better.”
The boy began to tremble like an old car with a bad engine. The pupils in his eyes dilated so wide it made his irises look pure black. Hoyt wouldn’t swear to it, but he thought he saw a greenish glow in that blackness. Just a reflection from the fluorescent bars on the ceiling. Light playing tricks. Had to be.
“You have to stop her,” he said, voice as thin as the last string on an old violin.
“Stop who?” Hoyt asked, knowing that participating in a patent’s hallucinations did nobody any good. But he had felt the darkness the boy mentioned, had experienced it
him somehow. Now that Burlowski had dragged him out of its sphere, Hoyt felt like himself again. If he wanted, he could pretend he’d never touched the darkness. But denying it seemed wrong. Not just dishonest, but dangerous, like some folks who kept tigers as pets ignored the threat coiled in the beast’s very nature. Hoyt believed if he turned his back on this particular cat, he would definitely get eaten. “Stop who?” he repeated.
“The beast woman. The one who’s going to ruin everything.”
“All right,” Shanna snapped. “Enough. Bill, get Hoyt out of here. Get the ever-loving doctor for God’s sake.”