He awoke to a siren call. The wet, pleasantly acrid scent of a crisp November morning wafted through the half-open window, and drew him from the warmth of his bed. Dressing as silently as possible so as not to disturb Benedek snoring away on the other side of the room, he slipped from the bungalow, padding down the gravel path to the tiny wooded area beyond.
The grass was thick with dew, giving him a moment of pause for the good leather shoes heíd donned. But cool air beckoned him onward, whispering assurances that his rapidly lifting mood was certainly worth a pair of dress shoes.
The sense of peace and well-being this invigorating autumn morning offered to him could almost make him forget, if only for a while, that he had to return to the bungalow within the hour if he expected to make his flight back to D.C. that afternoon. He didnít want to go, not this soon. But Benny had tricked him into it, and pretended to misunderstand every effort MacKensie made to get him to change his mind. Even when Jonathan finally abandoned subtlety and logic and attempted to get an extension based purely on his own need to stay on, Benny remained adamant. Jonathan had promised no pressure, and Benny claimed to consider his Ďhoveringí, as he called it, to be just that, and so had sent him packing, presumably for MacKensieís own good.
Heíd wangled a four-day extension by virtue of some creative procrastination, but Benny finally called every bluff. The reservations were made, and in less than two hours, the car would be waiting to take him to the airport. While he pretended to accept Bennyís spurious reasons for shooing him back to G.I. and his interrupted life, it still felt wrong. Whatever that feeling of wrongness was persistently defied every attempt he made to use it in some persuasive argument, and so here he was, gathering his courage to leave.
At least he had the assurance that Benny was steadily recovering. Despite his initial apprehensions, Benedek brightened considerably when Dr. Moorhouse and Liz arrived at the Whitewood for their promised visit. Liz, bless her, averted an awkward moment by launching herself at Benny at first sight, smothering the man in a massive bear hug that left them both breathless and giddy. It was slow at first, but in time Benny had them all laughing at his constant barrage of awful anecdotes and worse puns, surprising even himself at the ease with which he regained a hefty measure of his old confidence and poise. Heíd deflated when it came time for them to leave, and for a while Jonathan feared that the visit would backfire, leaving Benny more depressed than before. But heíd moped for only a few hours, then made a startling rebound, insisting on moving his belongings from the main building to the extra bed in Jonathanís bungalow, an arrangement to which Dr. Edwards reluctantly agreed. And for the last three days, Benedek had been driving MacKensie crazy with his increasing restlessness, which conversely Jonathan knew enough to embrace as a sure sign of recovery.
At least there would still be a chance for direct contact, for however long Benny felt he had to stay at the Whitewood to complete his recovery. Dr. Edwards gave Jonathan permission to install a separate telephone line in Bungalow 7, and allowed Benny to keep the phone so long as he agreed to the original terms and kept the set locked in the nightstand when not in use. If there was one thing from which Jonathan refused to be dissuaded, it would be daily check-up calls to Benny, and damn the man if he chose to misunderstand the reasons yet again. Let him pretend not to comprehend how Jonathan felt about the fact that Benny had won back MacKensieís life at the near cost of his own life and sanity; let him insist there was no place for gratitude and sentiment in his life; let him think heíd won at least this round. Jonathan knew how to be just as stubborn, and if he was unfamiliar with the rules of this particular game, then he was damn well going to prove himself a fast study.
But for now, he had to leave, and despite having accepted that, it still rankled. It just felt wrong to leave Benny behind while he stepped out into the freedom the manís sacrifice had won for him. And it felt worse that he couldnít coherently explain that to Benny and at the same time avoid those haunting accusations of exerting undue pressure.
In the midst of his rue-filled reverie, a strange heavy feeling abruptly descended on him. His muscles tensed, sending a shiver throughout his entire body. Startled, he looked around, already knowing that the odd sensation had no overtly physical cause.
Something was wrong, and drastically so. Danger threatened, fast and close.
He closed his eyes to remove the distraction of sight. The feeling came stronger now, as though he stood on the fringes of a whirlpool, one whose center inexorably approached. It pulsed against his searching mind, then suddenly leaped at him. Gasping, he recoiled, yanking his awareness away. Something was searching for him, and heíd just betrayed himself to it.
He ran blindly down the path, his only thought to reach the bungalow. He had to get to Benedek, warn him. Whatever this thing was threatened them both, and he was uncertain if Bennyís ordeal would have sensitized him, allowing him to feel the first faint traces as Jonathan did now. In his convalescent condition, Benny would be just as likely to dismiss the sensations as residual anxiety, or worse, as a harbinger of relapse, either of which would prove a dangerousóperhaps even fatalómisdiagnosis.
"Benedek?" He skidded through the open door, braking himself on the frame. For a moment he froze, searching and listening, hoping that the next few seconds would find him apologizing for his bizarre behavior. But no querulous voice greeted his precipitous entrance.
He tried to call again, but his throat went dry. Two steps into the room and he went still. There was a wrongness here that he could neither see nor touch, but he could feel it in the tautness of his muscles, and the strange tingling dancing across the surface of his skin.
A blackish splotch on the far bed drew his attention, and he forced his reluctant steps toward it. He stopped, frozen, and stared at the mute evidence of disaster.
A crumpled white and purple envelope lay discarded by the side of the bed. On the bedcovers were scattered the charred remains of four notebooks; fire had somehow touched only the books, leaving the spread beneath unmarred. Jonathan recognized the unique cover pattern on one small unburned portion; these were the cheap notebooks Benny used to record his three month odyssey, the ones to which heíd consistently refused MacKensie access.
A surprise. Jonathanís throat tightened. Benny had promised a surprise before MacKensie left. He must have had someone retrieve the notebooks from his New York apartment and express mail them to the Whitewood. And then....
The telephone was out on the nightstand, and next to it a pad of paper and pencil. Jonathan squinted to make out the largish scrawl without his reading glasses. A list of numbers...no, flight times. Six different departures, five to LaGuardia, one to Kennedy....
And a very large ĎXí covered the page, drawn in a red ink for which Jonathan knew neither he nor Benny had a corresponding pen.
His hand shot out, grabbing the telephone receiver. Punching out the numbers with trembling fingers, he fought the panic growing inside him. Only then did he realize what his fear had obscured: the steady approach of the thing relentlessly searching for him.
The connections went through with maddening slowness, and more than once he had to force himself to breathe. Relief flooded him to hear a familiar voice. "Liz! Oh, thank goodness. Is Dr. Moorhouse in yet? Yes, please. No, Iím...Iím fine, IímóLiz, please, I must speak to her immediately. Yes, of course I will. Thank you."
He closed his eyes, staying calm with an effort that drained strength from his limbs, enough so that he had to lean against the wall for support. Please, hurry, Dr. Moorhouse. Please. Thereís not much time left, please....
His eyes snapped open. "Dr. Moorhouse? Yes. No...no, as a matter of fact, things arenít all right here. Please, listen to me carefully. Benedek is gone. No, I donít know where, but...I do know it wasnít by choice." He paused, gathering courage. "Yes, I know exactly what Iím saying. Dr. Moorhouseótheyíre coming back for...."
He completed the statement, but his voice was gone, snatched away by his pursuer.
Behind him; standing in the doorway. The chill slicing through him came not from the gentle swirl of the crisp morning breeze, but from his awareness of the new presence.
It stole his voice, prevented him from moving. Gripping him, it made him feel its cold existence behind him, letting him know he was lost before saying, in a soft feminine voice, "Say goodbye, Dr. MacKensie."
She released his voice. His heart sank to realize that while she couldnít force the words into his mouth, he would have to do as she bid. If he tried to warn Dr. Moorhouse, she would merely paralyze his vocal cords again. And he had no idea how violently she would react to resistance. Left to himself, he wouldnít care about that.
But she had Benedek.
"Dr. Moorhouse." His voice sounded shaky despite his valiant effort to control it. "Dr. Moorhouse ...goodbye."
He slammed the receiver down, but not fast enough to keep from hearing the womanís long-distance cry of alarm.
Aware only of his rapid breathing, a roar in his own ears, he stared down at his hand clutching the handset, and awaited her approach.
A cold wind, a raw pulsing of malevolent, incalculable power; how familiar she felt. But not her appearance or even her name; those were unimportant considerations. He knew what she was. Three months in hell had given him an awareness beyond his five human senses.
He and Benedek hadnít escaped anything. It hadnít ended with Harmonís destruction, nor with Lonís, nor even with Bennyís deliverance from an unspeakable destiny. Theyíd only chopped at pieces, won tiny, insignificant battles, bought only a little space, false freedoms, just enough to delude themselves that it might finally be over. But in the end, they could only run from shadows for a little while before the darkness finally found them.
And she had, with remarkable ease.
He felt her eyes on him, quiet and meditative. She made no effort to imprison him; he was free to move or to speak as he chose. Yet he couldnít face her, and bitterness rose to know that he was handing her the first victory.
He forced himself to speak calmly. "What do you want?"
A small, amused laugh. "You, of course."
"You did this deliberately." His hand shook as he finally released the telephone, and he brushed his fingers across the glaring red ĎXí. Sheíd done this. With a smile of supreme satisfaction, sheíd obliterated Bennyís careful notes, undoubtedly forcing the man to watch as she tacitly crushed his hope for freedom and....
He swallowed, shutting off the bitter image. "You waited...."
Another soft laugh. "Until you thought you were safe again."
His hand swept back, sending the telephone, paper and pencil flying. "Damn you," he hissed, closing his eyes. "Where is he?"
"Come with me and see for yourself."
The room showed no signs of a struggle, giving him no clue as to how sheíd persuaded Benny to leave. He was left to infer from her words that perhaps she couldnít physically force him to go with her. But he thought it far more likely that she was impressing upon him the cold truth: offering a choice proved only that he had no choice. If he resisted and by some miracle won his freedom from her, his safety would have been bought at the cost of Bennyís life. And that price was too high.
"Shall we go?"
He summoned as much courage and dignity as he could and turned to face her.
And bitterly marveled at how the face of evil could be so exquisitely masked.
No temptress or siren of legend beckoned him into her web; her features were ordinary, her copper-hued hair and tweed business suit stylish but otherwise unexceptional. She held out a hand as the gleam in her eyes grew.
They wore their guises well, clinging to their old facades as the last vestige of their lost humanity. But there was nothing human left inside them. The cold light in her hazel eyes burned as fiercely as it had in Harmonís. And as it had once glowed in the depths of Bennyís fevered gaze.
"The car is waiting, Dr. MacKensie."
No choices. No reprieves. This battle was hers. But, he swore silently to himself, not the war. Not by a long shot.
He embraced the thought, clung fiercely to it, and used the strength he gained from it to follow her gesture, without faltering, out of the room.
A car waited in the driveway at the end of the path; behind it, a white-suited man secured the doors of an unmarked ambulance. Jonathan started toward the vehicle, but invisible hands yanked him to a halt.
"Perhaps later," she said, coming up behind him. "Pleaseóinto the car. We have a long journey ahead of us."
She freed him, but a gesture of her hand showed him the only direction he would be allowed to move.
A liveried chauffeur opened the rear door of the sedan, standing aside for him. He hesitated, studying the youngish man covertly. The pale, staring eyes were soulless; dead. She didnít control him; she didnít have to. His spirit had been crushed, perhaps long ago, and she merely animated the empty shell to do her bidding.
As Harmon recruited roustabouts and performers, so she gathered chauffeurs and ambulance attendants.
She moved into the range of his peripheral vision, a silent warning that if he didnít move, she would revoke what little dignity she allowed him. Staring at the closed ambulance, he considered the price of resistance. Anything he tried now would undoubtedly cost him pain, probably his consciousness, and would gain nothing save perhaps his prideóa thing of little consequence.
Heíd barely settled in the back seat when the chauffeur, without warning or apology, leaned in and grabbed his wrists, binding them with a short length of rope. The silent man then removed a handkerchief from his pocket, but the woman stopped him with a sharp, "Thank you, Brian."
Straightening, the chauffeur closed the door, crossing to the other side to hand his employer into the back seat.
Why this? Jonathan kept his eyes down, lost in confusion. Why rope when she can paralyze me with a mere thought? He felt her slide in beside him, and concentrated on keeping his face completely expressionless.
She canít read minds. Thatís my only advantage. She canít anticipate me unless I let her, either through fear or carelessness. Thereís a purpose behind everything she does, everything she says. Thatís what I have to figure out: why.
At the main gates, a sentry flagged both vehicles to a halt. Checking the proffered pass, the guard addressed the chauffeur casually. "Just you and Dr. Brophy here?"
Jonathan stiffened, warmth draining from his limbs. Visual manipulation; heíd nearly forgotten. Harmon had used it so infrequently, preferring to rely on the transience of his venue for protection.
Her invisible bonds held him still and silent as the chauffeur nodded a mute affirmation. Satisfied, the guard stepped back and waved them through the open gate.
She released Jonathan when both car and ambulance turned onto the main road toward the interstate, and from the corner of his eye, he caught a brief flash of her hand pressed quickly to the side of her head. Hope flared, quickly suppressed lest he inadvertently betray it to her. Restraining him drained her, suggesting that the rope binding his wrists was less a visual symbol of his situation than a very real need for backup methods. Resistance might not be as futile as she wanted him to think.
He stared out the window, concentrating on appearing defeated while at the same time committing highway signs and landmarks to memory. After a time, he became aware that she was watching him carefully, perhaps expecting him to demand answers, or even to abjectly plead for mercy.
"You will not find me an ungracious hostess, Dr. MacKensie," she spoke at length. "I trust I will not find you an ungracious guest."
He remained silent, unwilling to betray any reaction to her polite euphemisms. This was her game, and even given his experience with Harmon, he was ill-equipped to play by the rules she set. The advantage was all on her sideófor now. It was left to him to wait and watch, let her reveal her tactics and strategy and by doing somehow determine how he could fight her. There had to be a way, he had to believe that. He needed even that nebulous hope to survive.
An idea formed, and he hesitated, calculating whether it was born from logic or desperation. But even desperation seemed worth the risk now. He glanced at her from the corner of his eye, saw that her attention was elsewhere. Heartened, he surreptiously drew a deep breath, gathered every bit of bitterness and anger he could muster and released it in an explosive mental blast against her.
She started, gasping sharply as though struck. Fury flashed in her eyes, heralding swift and violent retaliation.
Something crushed his lungs, paralyzing them. He tried to cry out, but she immobilized even his reflexes, allowing him no struggle, inexorably squeezing until waves of red-hued pain crashed through his head.
She released him just as the first jagged edges of blackness threatened to sweep away his consciousness. Clutching at his throbbing head, he doubled over, unable to do more than convulsively gasp air into his depleted lungs. Through the dull, throbbing haze of pain he heard her say quietly. "Your first mistake, Dr. MacKensie. And I assure you I will not treat future ill-considered actions quite so gently."
But her threats meant nothing now; heíd determined that she could be attacked. And that discovery was worth any amount of pain she could cause him.
He awoke with a start, and froze for the several seconds it took him to collect his scattered senses. The car was stationary; the front seat as well as the space beside him empty.
Asleep? No, I wasnít that tired....
Realization jolted him. Somewhere early on, sheíd gotten wise to his steady gaze out the car window.
He glanced down, finding that his wrists were still secured, but his watch was missing. With the heavily overcast sky above, he couldnít even use to the sunís position to make a rough calculation how long theyíd been traveling.
Movement distracted him; Brian was opening up the door, reaching in to help him out of the car. He did so slowly, pretending muscles more stiffened and cramped than they really were to allow himself more time to study his surroundings. The ambulance was parked a short distance away at the head of a curving, tree-lined driveway. Brophy stood nearby, giving Jonathan a brief look before returning her attention to the two attendants, to whom she was giving quiet instructions. Less than a hundred yards away, a gravel pathway led up to a sprawling, two-story complex; above the doorway he could just make out the neatly stenciled legend, "Lincoln County Hospital For Psychiatric Rehabilitation".
The driveway curved back into the depths of a thick mask of trees in both directions, giving him no other clues as to where heíd been brought. And then the question became moot; the ambulance attendants moved to the back of their vehicle, opening the doors.
With a slight gesture, she stopped his move toward the ambulance, allowing him only to watch as the two men unloaded a stretcher from the back.
He saw nothing more than a sheet-covered form secured with three thick straps before the attendants released the wheels of the gurney, deftly negotiating it it up the path to the hospital entrance.
For the first time, he allowed himself to feel anger and frustration as he watched the orderlies disappear inside the building. Brophy maneuvered to block his line of vision, regarding him coolly. "Brian will escort you to your new accommodations."
The chauffeur moved closer to his side, but Jonathan did not move, defying her peremptory gesture of dismissal. "I want to see him," he stated flatly, uncowed by the malevolent coldness in her eyes.
"What you want is no longer a consideration," she informed him tautly. "I would have thought you understood that much at least."
"I understand enough," he said evenly. "Now you understand this. I can keep this up for as long as it takes."
Her eyes flickered with growing irritation. "You will only cause yourself unnecessary pain."
"I dispute the term Ďunnecessaryí."
She did not answer for a moment, her eyes narrowing slightly. "Dr. MacKensie, I highly recommend you reappraise your situation somewhat less emotionally."
"Let me see him."
"To what gain?"
He hesitated. She wants me to bargain. With what? What do I have that she hasnít already taken?
The answer was in the strained expression on her face. His background resistance, formed of bitterness and anger, etched those hard lines around her eyes and mouth.
"Let me see him," Jonathan repeated quietly. "And I wonít fight you anymore."
She sniffed in polite disdain, but he saw faint interest dance in her eyes. In a pitched battle, he wouldnít stand a chance against her, but he would cost her time and effort. He was offering to make things less complicated and time-consuming, and he pushed back the vague fear that he was also offering to give up his only weapon against her.
Shrugging, she made a show of marked indifference. "If itís that important to you, I suppose something can be arranged. Later, howeveróafter we get you settled in."
Brophy accompanied them down sterile hallways, past closed, unmarked doors, coming at length to his Ďaccomodationsíóa cramped, empty room covered floor to ceiling with soft, white padding. As Brian released the rope binding his hands, Brophy, standing the open doorway, leaned back to gesture someone in.
"This is Danny," the woman said crisply as a young man dressed in a drab gray tunic and slacks shuffled in, clutching a bundle of similarly colored material to his chest. "Heíll be attending to your needs as they arise. To avoid any possible misunderstandings, please keep in mind that he takes his instructions only from me."
Dannyís head was lowered, but Jonathan already knew what he would see if he could: sunken, vacant eyes set in a gray, lifeless face.
On Dannyís arms, white scar tissue gleamed in the harsh light. Sympathy tugged at Jonathan. What happened, Danny? Were you sent here by loved ones who thought they were saving your soul? Did you come here hoping to free yourself from one deathtrap only to find true damnation masquerading as your salvation?
Brophy drew his attention back, saying, "After youíve changed into more suitable attire, Iíll consider accommodating your request."
He regarded her warily, sensing a note of challenge masked by her eloquence, but her face was a cold mask, unreadable. If she expected him to balk at donning the drab uniform of an asylum inmate....
Brian stopped him from shrugging out of his suit jacket. Off balance and confused, Jonathan lowered his hands, and before he could react or resist, the man deftly slipped the garment off his shoulders. Realization dawned, forming like a cold stone in the pit of his stomach as Brian matter-of-factly reached over to remove his tie.
It wasnít enough to deprive him of his freedom; she determined to steal his life, bit by bit, until he became little more than a husk, one of the silent drones serving her whims. She wanted him to watch, to feel the slow, gradual wearing-down process, and it started here: being forced to submit to a symbolic stripping down of his free will.
He closed his eyes, summoning what little dignity he swore she would not take from him, even as Brian silently went about his task, aided by Danny. The two men worked deftly and methodically against the humiliation pulling his muscles taut, stripping him naked under Brophyís approving eye, then just as efficiently redressing him to her specifications. The only outward resistance he allowed himself was clenching his fists tightly at his sides. Let her play her games; he wouldnít risk giving her any cause to renege. Benedek had to be all right, and he had to see that for himself. A flutter of true panic threatened to break loose at the thought that perhaps the ambulance and the restraints had been less a symbol of power and more of a real necessity....
No. No, Benedek is all right, he...he has to be. We have to figure this out together. He has to help me. Heís got to be all right.
I canít face this alone.
The tunic slipped over his head, settling in place. Brian released him, stepping away, and only then did he open his eyes again, to see Brophy regarding him with mild amusement.
"I can only allow you a few minutes with your friend," she informed him silkily. "Itís been a long journey, and you both need your rest." With that, she stepped back, beckoning him to precede her out of the room.
Harmonís Carnival had been a ceaseless cacophony, never less than a vibrant tumult even when at rest. This venue was its antithesis, numbing in its complete and total silence. Even their footsteps were muffled in the thick pile carpeting covering the hallway floors.
Brian and Danny provided silent escort, behind and to either side of him. Brophy led the way, turning down one corridor after another, until he was sure she deliberately misled his attempt to memorize the route.
At length, she paused in front of an unmarked door, entering without knocking. He followed cautiously, aware that Brophy stood aside for him, watching him with cold, bright eyes.
The room was not much larger than the one heíd just left, but this one was furnished with a simple iron cot, upon which lay a huddled, sheet-covered form. Two nurses, male and female, stood on either side; both looked up at Jonathanís entrance, and he froze to see a familiar light glow in their eyes.
Is that what Benny saw all those weeks ago? Is that what I looked like to him?
The man stared coldly at him, but the woman recoiled slightly, her face twisting in a soundless snarl. Jonathan hesitated, regarding her warily.
"Gently, Terri," Brophy said mildly, moving to stand a few paces behind him. "You must expect some initial hostility, Dr. MacKensie. In you they see the ashes of a fallen comrade."
He willfully fought back the threatened rise of revulsion, refusing to let Lonís specter haunt him from the depths of Terriís malefic glare. More important matters drew him; Benedek hadnít reacted to their entrance or to Brophyís voice. He lay on his side, the sheet pulled tightly around him; all Jonathan could see was his back and part of his head.
Terri backed off as he moved to the side of the bed; the male nurse responded to Brophyís quick motion, also stepping away. Tentatively, Jonathan reached out to touch Benedekís hunched shoulder. The man shuddered at the contact, emitting a small thin sound like the cry of a wounded animal. Startled, Jonathan flinched his hand away, but Benny suddenly twisted, grabbing MacKensieís wrist in a crushing grip.
Shock stole his breath and froze his soul. He wasnít sure what heíd expected, but this surpassed his worst fears. The face Benedek revealed to him was swollen and splotched, smeared with the tears still welling freely from reddened, puffy eyes. And in those wild, staring eyes Jonathan saw something heíd seen only three times before. Once in the National Register office; twice at the Whitewood.
No. No, Benny, please. See the truth, you have to see the truth. Donít let her win. Please.
Bennyís mouth worked, and at length sound came as a fearful, broken whisper. "Jonathan?"
Relief washed through him. He closed his free hand over the one with which Benny still clung to him, mute support. "Yes, itís me. Itís all right, itís...."
Benny squeezed his eyes shut with a low, anguished moan. "No. No, I donít want it to be you. If itís you, this isnít a dream, and itís got to be a nightmare, itís got to be, I canít...I canít...."
"Benny...." Bitterness choked off his words as the man dissolved into dry, soundless sobs. He tried to pull away, but Benedek held on, fingers clawing into the fabric of his tunic. "Iím sorry," he gasped. "I shouldíve run, I...I shouldíve tried... tried to warn you, warn someone, Iím sorry, Iím sorry...."
"No," he grated past the thickness lodged in his throat. No, donít do this, donít let her win! You fought so hard to come back, donít let her rip it away from you like this. Fight, damn youófight!
Bennyís whitened fists trembled, pulling and pushing him away at the same time, reflecting the desperate fear animating his sweat and tear-drenched face, and the pitched internal battle shining like a fast-changing tumult of light and shadow in his feverish eyes. My godóyou are fighting.
And with that realization, he faltered. It would be a mercy to let him go, let him slide without a sound into the abyss. Beg him to stay, and he would be asking Benny to live like Prometheus bound, besieged by demons gnawing away at him, bit by vital bit, until the abyss forcibly claimed his ravaged soul.
But those couldnít be the only alternatives. Heíd lived too long in the hands of despair to willingly return to those bleak depths, and his own recent experience told him that no matter how strongly the bonds of evil twined, hope was never far away. As it hovered on the fringes, unable to breach the barriers, so it was easy to think it weak and ineffectual, a pale weapon against an indefatigable foe. But he knew better now. Evil was allowed to seek and find; hope had to be sought and found.
He reached out now, and found the faint threads, clutched at them, and willed them to touch the torment pulsing through his contact with Benny. "Hang on," he begged in a whisper. "Thereís a way out of this, I know there must be."
Benny, eyes closed, shook his head tersely. "I canít...donít ask me to...to...."
"I canít do it without you."
"Donít." His voice was a thin, controlled wail. "Donít you understand? Thereís no way out because...because we belong here."
Something slashed through Jonathan, laying open a old, aching wound. "No," he murmured, a weak protest Benny trampled underfoot, saying, "Zombiesóremember them? Walking around dead kinda guys? We tracked a few in our time, only they never really turned out the way we expected." With a soft gasp, his strange manic strength deserted him. He fell back against the mattress, his hands dragging at Jonathanís tunic. "Thatís us, Jack. Walking dead. Itís true," he insisted to the single, strangled sound his friend made as he bowed his head. "You and meówe never made it out of Harmonís red tent."
"Benny," Jonathan said, tightening his grip on the manís bloodless hands. "Weíre not dead. We won, and life was the victory, you know that."
He made a sound; derisive and bitter. "Life wasnít the victory. It was the punishment."
"I donít believe that," he said stubbornly, but full conviction eluded his desperate grasp. "We won. I wonít let them make a mockery of that. I wonít."
The worst of the desperation had left Benedekís eyes, leaving him deceptively calm as he stared up at Jonathan. "Somebody stepped on your brains when they tripped your stubborn switch," he murmured, his voice barely audible. "Then again, thinking never got us anywhere, did it?"
A slight movement just outside the range of his peripheral vision became a jarring reminder of Brophyís hovering presence. Jonathan willfully ignored the implied threat, concentrating on the faint color returning to Benedekís pallid face. "Gut instincts," he agreed fervently. "You taught me how, remember?"
Benny was silent for a time, his eyes seeming to consider Jonathan, then search something inside him. When he spoke, it was in a voice drained of strength. "I donít think I can reach that far anymore."
"Then reach as far as you can," Jonathan said, letting his tightened grip become a mute gesture of urgency. "Iíll find a way. All you have to do is be there when I come for you."
His eyes narrowed slightly; whether confusion or doubt, Jonathan couldnít tell. "Trust me," he said quietly. "If you canít trust your instincts, trust mine."
A light grew in his eyes, and Jonathanís heart lifted to suspect that it was the faint return of hope rather than the resurgence of desperate fear. "Sheíll kill you," Benny whispered emotionlessly.
"Maybe," he agreed. "But she canít kill a dead man, can she?"
The fingers Benny dug into Jonathanís tunic slowly relaxed. "You donít have to do this," he said hoarsely. "You donít owe me anything."
"Stop it," he cried, more sharply than he meant. "Donít tell me what to do or how to feel, just...just donít give up."
He started to tremble again. "You donít know what youíre asking."
Jonathan shook him, stilling his thin moan. "Trust me," he insisted. "Thatís all Iím asking."
Quiet terror brimmed in his wide, staring eyes. "In the bungalow," he said, a bare whisper. "When they...came. I heard the door open, I thought it was you, I...thought it was you, and for a moment, just a moment, it was you."
Shudders born of bitter memory wracked him, and it was all Jonathan could do to keep his grip firm, and to keep himself crying out in protest for Bennyís anguish. "They tried...." He swallowed, his words coming in tortured gasps. "...tried to make me think it was you, but I saw...I saw the lie." Pulling at Jonathanís shoulder, he forced every bit of strength he had left into his words. "Remember that," he rasped. "I saw the lie. Remember that. Rememó"
With a sharp groan, he fell back, eyes glazing under the mental blow Brophy dealt him, the same one that forced Jonathan back, ripping his friend from his grasp. Jonathan fell to the floor with a cry that plunged into an angry shout as Brian and Danny gathered him up, dragging him to his feet and away from the bed. Brophy confronted him, eyes flashing furious challenge as the two nurses eagerly converged on Benny, who lay gasping in helpless pain. "Visiting hours are over, Dr. MacKensie," Brophy snapped, making a sharp gesture for Brianís benefit. "Itís dinnertime."
Brian and Danny hauled him back, but not before realization slammed into him, stealing his last measure of resolve. Terri and the male nurse bent over the cot, reaching out for the huddled form, their faces alight with anticipation. At their touch, Bennyís moan escalated to a wrenching shriek that wrapped itself around Jonathanís heart, squeezing until a scream of his own drained him of all strength, robbing him of all awareness as Brian and Danny carried him from the room.
Harsh white light pulled him from the depths of swirling blackness, seeping painfully into his aching head. He lay sprawled on his back, staring up at glaring whiteness, curiously numb. His face was hot. A vague probe at his burning eyes found them moist and swollen, but his muscles protested the movement and with a groan, he let his arms drop to the soft floor.
Fragments of memory coalesced, and his bitter moan grew as each piece dropped into place. A single sound echoed in his mind, stitching the too-clear image together with a burning thread: the keening of Benedekís desperate cry as Brophyís minions bent over him. Iím sorry. Iím sorry. He folded his hands over his face, muffling his thin cry, and welcomed the straining ache in his bones as a distraction from the greater pain. I donít know why theyíre doing this. Is it you theyíre tormenting for destroying Harmon? Is it me theyíre punishing for giving you the key? Or is she attacking both of us to further some strategy Iíve yet to figure out? Am I making a mistake thinking thereís any kind of strategy at all? Does this kind of evil need a reason?
That was one question to which he already knew the answer. She couldnít afford to expend time and energy on mere sadistic pleasures. For everything she did to them, there existed a purpose. If not, she would have killed them outright, without a thought or momentís hesitation.
She needs us alive. Why? And can I last long enough to figure it out?
Something impinged on his senses, pushing aside the maelstrom of his thoughts. She had entered the room, going into a crouch beside him. Without removing the hands over his face, he knew she was there and knew the cold, smug light in her eyes as she gazed down on him.
A slight muscular spasm, nothing more, betrayed his awareness to her. "Thank you," she said, voice thick with satisfaction. "Youíve simplified matters considerably. Your friend is much more...compliant now."
He let his hands slip down, wiping away the wetness staining his face and mouth as he gathered his lost composure. "Is that what you want?" He ruthlessly cleared his throat of the thickness coloring his voice. "Compliance? And what happens when you get what you want?"
Her smile grew, belying her casual shrug. "Thatís up to you, really. Your life here can be as difficult or as simple as you choose to make it."
He stared quietly at her, defying her lie. "I wasnít aware that any choice was involved."
"Really," she chided him mildly. "You make me out to be quite an unfeeling hostess. My sole intention is to make your stay here with us as painless as possible."
"How long do you plan to keep us here?" he forced himself to ask.
"Well, that depends," she replied, feigning thoughtfulness. "How long is your life expectancy?"
She met his silence with another smile, lifting a finger of mock warning. "Your word was given. No resistance." Lowering her hand, she reached over to touch his lips as though to seal them. "No comments. No questions. No pain."
He suppressed a shiver of revulsion at her cool touch, closing his eyes against her. The next moment, he heard a soft gasp, as though she had been mildly stung. His eyes came open in time to see a brief flash of confusion pass over her face as she stared down at her hand. Aware of his close scrutiny, she rose quickly to her feet, pausing mid-turn to say, "Rest now, Dr. MacKensie. Weíll talk later."
He watched her go, not missing the quick, convulsive gesture she madeóbrushing her fingers vigorously against her tweed skirt as though to rid them of something unpleasant.
The thought disintegrated with the sound of the door lock clicking into place, immersing him once again in the glaring white silence. Despair found a niche in his resolve, sliding in to crack it apart, rooting solidly in the spasms building in his chest. Softly at first, and then with a growing vehemence that finally sent him once again into the arms of welcome oblivion, he wept.
Four soft walls enclosed his world, suffused by white light that never dimmed, never wavered, seared his closed eyelids and refused him rest. He lay in its midst, sometimes on his back or curled on his side, most times on his stomach with his face buried in his crossed arms, a futile attempt to find the surcease of darkness. His only sense of time came from Dannyís thrice daily visits, to bring food and to minister to his other bodily needs. Jonathan submitted passively to Dannyís silent ministrations, allowing him to bathe and even shave him, balking only at being spoon-fed like a helpless child. At first, Danny had resisted, taking the tray away when Jonathan tried to wrest the utensils from his control. But by the third meal, Dannyís fingers uncurled from the spoon when Jonathan tugged at it. MacKensie ate little despite his gnawing hunger, watching Dannyís fearful expression, and evaluating the tremor in his hand when the young man snatched back the spoon and the tray to make a hasty exit. At the next mealtime, Danny hesitated, meeting Jonathanís eyes in mute plea before silently handing over the spoon and settling back to watch him eat.
He made half-hearted attempts to communicate with Danny, but was met either with stony indifference, or with a flash of violent fear that Jonathan felt compelled to respect. The muteness Brophy forced on her drones puzzled him; Harmon had allowed his drones speech, and in many cases, as with Billy, granted limited freedoms as a prize for good behavior. But Brophy seemed to associate total control with silence, and extended that control to all within her venue.
And in his case, silence became an instrument of exquisite torture, augmented by Dannyís cold, detached presence.
He used sleep as an escape, but with it lost track of time and space. More than once he felt himself drift, convinced that he pressed to the ceiling, or to the walls, that the world spun around him as its absolute center, that he could close his eyes and lose himself forever in the soft nothingness. And, more than once, a little voice shouted in his ear, startling him from comfortable lethargy back into stark, bitter reality. If he didnít give in to quiet tears, heíd draw a deep breath, close his eyes and concentrate. Hated memorizations and recitations returned to him in pieces. He eschewed Dickinson, preferring to summon the spirits of Tennyson and Frost, Browning and Shelley, even Homer and Ovid, and when his memory disintegrated, denying him a line or three, heíd improvise his own continuation, which brought more than one incongruous laugh to his lips.
Nonsense songs, ditties from his youth filled his waking consciousness, and he wrapped himself in the warm memories. The first time Danny had found him curled in the corner, eyes closed and a silly smile plastered on his face, it had taken Jonathan some time to realize that he wasnít alone anymore. When he opened his eyes, Danny hastily averted his face, busying himself with the meal tray. But Jonathan was left with the strong feeling that, just for a moment, Danny had been afraid for him.
Brophy began therapy sessions less than a week later.
Jonathan had another word for the daily excursions out of his cubicle into other rooms marked "Isolation" and "Tank" and "DangeróElectrical Equipment in Use". Danny preceded the orderlies by several minutes, and Jonathan came to recognize which particular Ďtherapyí was on the schedule by the quiet preparations the young man made. For the Tank, his clothes would be taken from him, his eyes and mouth sealed with soft cloth and his ears plugged with fitted wax. For Isolation, only his clothes were forfeit, and for electro-shock, Danny shaved his face before smearing white cream on his neck, torso and arms. Then the orderlies lifted him to the gurney, fitting the arm and leg restraints before wheeling him out, Danny trailing behind.
His sessions were invariably supervised by Brophy, who never addressed him directly, only speaking to the technicians in a low-pitched voice he never managed to overhear.
Isolation was administered in a pitch-black room by the shadows of Brophyís offspring, vying with each other to invade his mind with more vivid and horrific visions of hell, while others, waiting their turn, lapped eagerly at his torment. He came to know them as faceless individuals, each with their own unique talent for orchestrating heart-stopping, mind-searing nightmares. In particular, he dreaded Terriís cold, malice-driven touch. Her siblings salivated when she set to work, knowing she alone could deliver him screaming to them every time.
The Tank was a more insidious version of the same sadistic game, only this time he was denied his five senses, floating in a deprivation tank while they picked at his sanity like giggling children. And electro-shock was his punishment for flashes of anger or stubbornness that sent them squealing in irritation or sometimes real pain.
Always before he was locked in Isolation or before dull, stinging current convulsed his body and sent him tumbling into the gray haze of oblivion, he would see a soft, mocking smile touch Brophyís harsh features. Bereft of his senses preparatory to a session in the Tank, he could still feel her near him, her smile burning like a cold flame licking greedily at his soul. And it was the one image that lingered long after heíd awakened, shivering and alone on the padded floor of his room, dispelled only after heíd either buried it in a long session of determined recitation, or, less often, in a cleansing flood of bitter tears.
This was his world, his existence, no more and no less. He kept his thoughts constrained, carefully culling only words and rhythms from his memory, not daring to dwell on other things that now lay beyond his reach. His facade cracked only once, when the meal tray carried with it a rude reminder of his loss. The spoon paused, trembling, over a simple repast of sliced turkey and jellied cranberries. Danny carried away an untouched tray.
And then came the day when Danny arrived with the orderlies, no gurney in tow. Jonathan let the two attendants haul him to his feet, and made no effort to resist as Danny secured padded handcuffs around both of his wrists. His confusion grew as they guided him out of the cubicle, the first time heíd been allowed to move under his own power since the day heíd first been brought here. His legs wobbled, weak from disuse, but the orderlies on either arm supported him with unusual care, following Dannyís silent lead down the myriad hallways.
The room they ushered him into was exquisitely furnished and decorated. An ornately carved desk occupied front and center, surrounded by a deep-cushioned sofa and matching chairs. Classically rendered paintings and sculpture contrasted the soft, muted colors. A sense of ironic solicitude permeated every inch of Brophyís office.
Guided to a chair near the desk, they eased him down, then left the room, closing the door behind him. Aware that Danny lingered, standing just beyond the range of his peripheral vision, Jonathan kept still, letting only his eyes search the office. Almost unwillingly, his gaze was drawn to one of the two large windows framed in the near wall. The drapes were parted, revealing a sun-filled landscape beyond, trees bending in a careless wind, occasionally blustering a swirl of whiteó snow?óoff the branches and coaxing the spray into a brief, manic dance before swirling away in a shower of light.
He swallowed against the thickness forming in his throat, pressing against the back of his eyes. The trees, barren branches to which withered, brown leaves still clung, beckoned him with a gesture he associated with one of Brophyís more mischievous charges, taunting and teasing. Beyond a simple barrier of glass lay the life heíd been denied by a twist of fate, an ill-considered moment in which heíd forgotten Edgar Benedekís hastily worded warning. In a way, Benny had been right. Neither of them had survived Harmonís red tent. In his own case, the Jonathan MacKensie who had responded to Billyís casual suggestion that something smelled funny in the tent whose flap he held open for him, had died in there. And heíd died screaming, either during the first slashing attack, or by inches, strangled by the relentless grip of evil. And the Edgar Benedek who had fought Harmon to the death in that red-hued arena had died there too. What emerged from that ordeal had been two new lives, clinging to old names and old memories, and never given a chance to come to terms with the change forced upon them.
Perhaps Benny, even in the depths of his terror and despair, had seen more clearly that he had that they were here because they belonged nowhere else.
"You are nothing if not resilient."
Brophyís quiet voice startled him, more from chagrin at not having heard her enter the room. She came up from behind him, pausing in front of the window to consider him for a moment, her expression closed. Then, casually, she reached out to draw the drapes.
He pretended indifference, but her simple action sent a curious ache shuddering through him, and he prayed that she did not notice. She crossed to stand before him, leaning against the front of her desk, crossing her arms to study him carefully. "Resilient," she repeated, nodding to herself as he met her gaze with quiet defiance. "Iím rather concerned about you, Dr. MacKensie. You donít appear to be responding to treatment. Why do you continue to do this to yourself?"
He blinked, deliberately shifting his wrists within the confines of the padded handcuffs. "Youíll excuse me if I choose to misunderstand the question," he replied quietly.
"As a matter of factóI wonít excuse you." She pushed off the desk, stepping forward to stand over him, glaring down at the top of his head. "You have had the situation explained to you, clearly and succintly. You made a bargain with me, the terms of which I met within reason, but which you continue to ignore. By the way...." Unexpectedly, she bent to meet his eyes on the same level, giving him a curiously intent stare. "Wouldnít you like some news of your friend?"
He stiffened, taking a moment to quell the reflexive reaction her words provoked. "No," he said quietly. "Not really."
Her eyebrows shot up. "Do I take this to mean you donít care?"
His heart fluttered wildly in his chest, but he kept his voice level. "You may take it to mean I donít trust you to tell me the truth. If you really want me to know how he is, youíll let me see for myself."
Her expression closed as she straightened. After a moment, she shrugged, dismissing the point. Jonathan sagged, battling a fatigue-born wave of despair. Heíd never expected her to agree, but for a moment, just a moment....
"Why do you stubbornly insist upon causing yourself so much pain?" she continued, pacing slowly around his chair. "You donít have to suffer like this. No more therapy, proper accomodations, a measure of freedom befitting a man of your intelligence and talents. You have so much to offer us, and we have so much to offer you."
He made no effort to hide his distaste and outright revulsion, and her expression tightened angrily. "What do you cling to?" she challenged quietly. "Some vague hope of rescue? Is that what enables you to suffer so nobly? Oh, yesóI know your story, Dr. MacKensie. Weíve watched you for quite a long time. You owe your life to the unflagging efforts of staunch and loyal friends, and so perhaps can be forgiven for thinking they will not fail you now. And if it is that certainty that shields you from the truth, I feel that I do you a mercy by putting your delusions to rest as quickly as possible, so that you will not spend endless, wasted hours waiting in the silence for the sound of footsteps that will never come."
She glanced up at a polite knock on the office door, and slid a hard, glittering look back to Jonathan, who reacted with silence to her softly spoken, yet coldly emphatic words. "Come in," she said.
She straightened, crossing in back of him to greet the newcomer. "Ah, yes. Thank you, Brian. Come in, please," she said effusively. "Dr. Moorhouse, is it?"
Jonathan started violently, unable to breathe past the shock holding his muscles prisoner as a familiar voice answered in the affirmative. No, he chided himself firmly. Itís a trick. Benny warned me about this, itís got to be a trick. Even so, the warmth drained from his limbs as he tensed, waiting for Brophy to escort her visitor into his line of vision.
And in that moment, he became aware that something other than the padded manacles bound him. She locked his muscles, permitting him no movement or sound. His eyes widened at his first sight of Dr. Moorhouse, looking more worn and haggard than he could ever remember having seen her, and his heart plummeted. She was real; this was no trick. He could feel her like a palpable presence, warm and viable, no phantom or masked drone, but a real person, drained by worry and anguish.
He barely heard the words past the pounding of his heart in his ears. Dr. Moorhouse was looking at him, studying him with narrowed, searching eyes....
...and not seeing anything save what Brophy chose to let her see. Lips pressed together tightly, Dr. Moorhouse glanced back, shaking her head. "Iím sorry."
Masking her smug glow, Brophy managed to look genuinely sympathetic. "So am I. Iíd hoped weíd finally identified this poor soul."
Dr. Moorhouse nodded, the lines in her face deepening with disappointment and fatigue. "And heís the only John Doe you have under your care at the moment?"
Tears stung at the back of his eyes, welling up to blur his vision. Dr. Moorhouse, please. Donít listen to her, please, look at me. You can see past the lies if you try, if you just look at me.
"Iím sorry to have wasted your time."
"Oh, please, I wonít hear of an apology. Iím the one whoís sorry that he isnít the one youíre looking forófor both your sakes."
Dr. Moorhouseís gaze drifted back to Jonathan, and he closed his eyes, in pain for the genuinely sympathetic look she gave him. "Yes," he heard her murmur tiredly. "Poor fellow."
A firm touch pushed his chin up. Startled, his eyes flew open to find himself staring into Dr. Moorhouseís eyes, intent and searching. She gasped almost inaudibly, staring down at the hand sheíd pressed to his face, then, narrow-eyed, back into his eyes. His freely-flowing tears covered her fingers, but he read her confusion with a leap of hope. The mask Brophy imposed on him appeared dry-eyed to Dr. Moorhouseís searching stare.
But as quickly as hope flared, Brophy killed it, stepping into his line of vision just over Dr. Moorhouseís shoulder. He stared at her, interpreting the tense look on her face. If Dr. Moorhouse said anything to betray her confusion or suspicion, Brophy would not allow her to leave the office alive.
No. His groan, trapped behind Brophyís wall, reverberated throughout every fiber of his being. No.
Dr. Moorhouse straightened, her slight frown clearing as she turned to face Brophy. "Thank you for your time and understanding, Dr. Brophy," she said quietly.
Drained, Jonathan slumped in his chair, cursing the choking sobs she would not release. The image of the two women shaking hands spun before his blurred eyes, and he saw Brophy dart a glance at him, glowing with triumph as she ripped his last hope from his weakened grasp.
And as Dr. Moorhouse, saying something he couldnít hear past the anguish pounding in his chest, turned to leave, he screamed his fury soundlessly, letting the cry flash at Brophy from the depths of his eyes. She reacted to the attack instantly, sent him reeling back into pain-wracked unconsciousness, but for a split second, he saw the color drain from her face, and his heart leapt to know that, just for a moment, his blow had been a telling one.
Awareness returned by painful inches. He allowed it to take him on its own terms, barely wincing at the stinging barbs of pain dancing manically inside his head. His limbs, too heavy to move, were carelessly sprawled, one arm folded awkwardly beneath him; his face crushed into the floor, and the one slight movement he managed to free his labored breathing smeared perspiration against the padding.
The first thing he saw were the handcuffs, tossed in an untidy pile nearby. Then movement, like a shadow in the white light; a pair of soft gray shoes came to rest before his unfocused eyes.
He felt sick, and for a moment couldnít remember why. And then memory came in the form of a soft voice, fraught with quiet despair: Iím sorry to have wasted your time.
No. He curled, his groan shuddering up with the shriek of his abused muscles. The dreams heíd used to push out the more vibrant nightmares and protectively wrap his sanity, Brophy had turned against him, turning the dream to nightmare, and hope to dust.
Dr. Moorhouse was safe. And would remain so as long as the suspicion heíd glimpsed in her eyes did not grow strong enough to turn her steps back. He clutched at the thought, drawing thin comfort from it, determined to nurture it until he could use it as a weapon against the despair gnawing at him.
A touch on his shoulder startled him violently from his desperate concentration. He twisted with a snarling gasp, grabbing Dannyís thin wrist.
The young man recoiled, terrified, but Jonathan held him fast, nearly pulling him off balance. For a moment, reason deserted him: it was he restrained, Brophy whose eyes widened in terror, quailing miserably at the fury and hatred bursting forth out of the depths of his tormented soul....
His fingers loosened of their own volition, and he fell back with a gasp, drained by the effort. Danny skittered back to cower against the far wall, panting with abject fear. As quickly as madness seized him, it was gone, leaving nothing but regret for the terror heíd left in Dannyís eyes.
Using the wall near him, he clawed to a sitting position, stifling a cry at the ache burning from his muscles. He leaned his head against the soft padding covering the wall, weakened both body and spirit. The room spun like a turgid whirlpool, dark objects swirling in the ubiquitous white light. Danny remained still, pressed to the far wall. Jonathan tried to focus on him, but another black splotch, on the floor within his armís reach, drew his eyes.
At first he thought it was the meal tray, but at length the individual contents stabilized enough for him to make tentative identification. A pile of folded cloths, two metal canisters, and a safety razor.
He stifled a groan, folding his face and the clawed fingers of one hand into the padded wall. A tiny voice protested the sickness growing in his stomach, incongruous reason telling him to embrace the ordeal as a respite from the searing pain, if only for a little while. Electro-shock always left him completely enervated, unable to move or to think, only drift in a gauzy limbo, disconnected from both reality and nightmare. Yet she used it only as punishment; her minions resented its use because it left him tasteless for days afterward, and he dreaded the lassitude that denied him his capacity to think coherently, and thereby wrested his memory and with it his poetry and another chunk of his sanity from him.
Why this, and why now? In short minutes, sheíd accomplished what Terri and her cohorts had failed to do in hours and days and weeks of concentrated effort. Brophy had somehow found the one place inside him heíd managed to shield, ripped him open and forced him to watch as she ground that last untouched part of him underfoot. The wound was still open, and the last vestiges of warmth left in him gushed from it, his strength and his sanity tugging away from him by the force of the flow. Maybe he could cling to some little bit, and nurture the extinguished flame back to life with it, but for that he needed what little cognizance he had left. The tray before him promised that very soon, a hundred volts of electricity coursing through his body would handily snatch that last hope from him.
Thatís it, then. Sheís letting me see the last nail.
Part of him was already gone from his conscious control. He watched in detached fascination as his own hand reached out to close over the safety razor.
Danny made a single convulsive movement, as though to spring forward, but went still, frozen in place. In a strange, soft fog, Jonathan saw his face; widened eyes, drawn features, suggesting fear but, he decided, more probably tense expectation.
Is that it, Danny? Are you too frightened to react, or are you merely following directions? He turned the object over in his hands, seeing only form and cold substance, letting light do a sprightly dance on the polished metal. Do you have any idea what sheís taken from me? Maybe you do. Maybe you donít. She owns you, and she wants to own me, only you let her and I didnít. I didnít, and I wonít. I wonít.
The handle twisted easily under his careful probe, revealing a glimpse of the gleaming metal inside.
So close. And she saw something in my eyes, I know she did. But she left. At least, I hope she left. I pray she left. How long has she been searching? How long will she continue to search? How long before the search eats away at her, taking the rest of her life away? I saw the fear at work, like a cancer inside her. She knows. She knows what happened to us, yet she doesnít know, and itís killing her by inches, I saw all that in her eyes when she saw something in mine.
He toyed with the handle: opening and closing. Opening and closing. And Danny watched, still and silent.
Brophy wanted to show me that Dr. Moorhouseís search will never end. Yet does she know what that really means to me? Does she realize that by my witnessing such determination, I canít even consider letting go of my own?
He drew a breath, letting the calmness following his oddly lucid thought take root in his shattered soul. I almost made the mistake of thinking Brophy had won. She hasnít won anything, because she wants what I wonít give her. If she merely wanted to celebrate her victory, sheíd share it with Terri and the others, but electro-shock is punishment, which can only mean that Brophy knows thereís something still left inside me unchastised. Resilient.
A strange thrill went through him, unmarred by fear or despair. I hit her. I hit her and it hurt. Enough so that she feels I need to be punished, perhaps...perhaps so that I wonít try it again.
Perhaps because she fears I will try it again.
He reached out with a surprisingly steady hand and took the canister of shaving cream from the tray.
Danny unfolded slowly, coming forward on his hands and knees as Jonathan fumbled through his awkward efforts to shave himself without a mirror. Eyes wide, he drew into a huddle on his knees a few feet away, staring with curious fascination, but making no effort to stop him.
The reservoir of strength he unexpectedly tapped just as unexpectedly failed him; his hand began to tremble, faintly at first, before the more violent tremors shook the razor from his fingers. He sagged, completely drained, unable to fight against the wave of nausea and dizziness threatening to make him pay for his efforts.
Danny moved to his side, easing him carefully to the floor. Sick and disoriented, he struggled to focus as the young man deftly completed the job, cleaning him up with an odd gentleness.
A voice spoke, startling him for the moment it took him to realize it was his own. A part of him, lost to conscious control, begging for understanding in a thin, exhausted voice, saying, "I donít understand. I donít understand why theyíre doing this. Danny, please. Tell me why. Tell me...tell me...."
For a moment, Jonathan started to reach out, stopping himself with a sheer effort of will. Danny belonged to Brophy, and he refused to accept anything of hers, not even the tiny amount of cold comfort simple human contact would bring him. He closed his eyes, suppressing a shudder as Danny began to daub the white protective cream on the side of his neck.
A soft sound, nothing more, brought his eyes open, searching first in confusion and then in growing wonder. Above him, head bent to his task, Danny was weeping.
Nothing makes sense anymore. He savored the thought, let the syllables slide and slur, and realized that he could actually feel the gentle irony, and that surprised him. That he could feel anything was a surprise in itself, an anomaly he snatched to place in triumph next to the irony. He clung to them both, fearful that they would dissolve in his grasp as everything else had done of late, but they stayed firm, they stayed, they stayed....
And brought with them a measure of awareness. He drew a deep breath, and felt that, too. And more awareness returned, tugging pieces of shattered reality back into place. The all-pervasive white light surrounded him, but something... something was different. Form and shadow moved, silent and swift; something hovered, then was gone, then returned, only to leave again....
With time and sheer mental effort, he pulled together a physical inventory. His arms were restrained by something rough, held down at his sides; he could move his head and curiously numbed legs only slightly. The shadows plaguing his vision resolved in detail, showing him vaguely familiar, expressionless faces hovering over him, leaving, returning, fussing with something attached to his head or his neck or....
Oh. Electro-shock. Of course.
No surprise, no panic, no fear, no dread. Nothing except acceptance. His only sense of time was of a gray void, punctuated by momentary awareness of being brought to this room to the exclusion of all others; session after session strapped to this table, waiting for the preparations to end and the descent into limbo to begin....
He frowned slightly. The sensations were different this time. The technicians hovering silently above him, he knew their touch, and it was different, different....
A strange, grating pain on the side of his head stung him momentarily and he blinked hard to see how the attendant above him had caused it. A glimpse of a white-gloved hand lifting away, holding....
His frown deepened, confusion joining the growing array of keening emotion. The shock pads...being removed?
No, thatís...thatís backward, thatís...the pads go on, they go on, and then I...I go away and I donít wake up until Iím back in the room or sometimes not until Iím back here again and the pads are going on....
Another sting, another pad pulling away, bringing sharp tears of pain to his eyes. Must have...must have changed their minds, maybe Terri and Kenneth and Jonah want me back in the Tank, maybe Brophyís tired of punishment, maybe she thinks sheís finally...burned me out.
Or maybe she knows it doesnít matter anymore.
"...youíve made it worse."
The sharp, infuriated whisper shook him from his aching reverie. The strap around his head kept him from searching for the speaker; he strained to listen, realizing with a start that he recognized Terriís angry voice.
"Enough." Brophy, her lowered voice filled with irritation. "Youíre out of line."
"Donít you dare tell me my place," Terri hissed. "Iíve done everything you asked, and more, and I knowóI know whatís happening. You promised us you had everything under control...."
"I said, enough!" Silence held, but he could almost feel their anger hang in the air between them. Then Brophy, only marginally calmer: "The situation has deteriorated, I will admit that...."
"It was a mistake to bring them here."
"I will welcome only constructive suggestions," Brophy snapped, "so if you have nothing further to say along those lines, then we have nothing further to say to each other."
"Yes, I do have a suggestion. Kill him. Kill him now and be done with it."
Her hard words chilled him, but Brophyís quiet reply ripped him open. "Impossible. You know as well as I do what happened when we tried to kill the other one."
Benny? Oh, god. Benny.
He squeezed his eyes shut, hoping to stifle the cry that pulled at his soul so as not to betray his awareness to them. The effort cost him; he strained convulsively against the straps, and the sound brought a listening silence. In the darkness behind his eyes, he waited for them to realize heíd heard them, and inflict retribution.
Terri made a disgusted sound, and he opened his eyes to realize that it was directed at Brophy, not at him. Above him loomed a form silhouetted by the overhead light; he blinked to make out the hazy details of Dannyís strangely calm, strangely expectant face. For a moment, he expected the young man to draw Brophyís attention to Jonathanís conscious condition, but then realized with a start that Danny had moved to shield that very fact from Brophy and Terri.
"You donít know that the same thing will...."
"Thatís just it, isnít it?" Brophyís voice dripped sarcasm. "We donít know. And your understanding of the situation in no way qualifies you to question my methods."
"But your continued failure does."
Brophy sighed sharply, exasperated. "All right, fine. I'll put it in your hands."
Terri hesitated. "What do you mean?" she demanded warily.
"Iím stepping away. Use your discretion."
A pause, then Terriís voice, somewhat dubious: "No interference?"
"None. But with one qualificationódonít get careless. Do not kill him."
She sniffed disdainfully. "Iím not stupid."
"I know youíre not. Thatís the only reason Iím giving you a free hand. We canít afford to be at odds, not now."
The sharp edge of tension melted from Terriís voice as she said quietly, "Yes, I know. I have an idea that I'm certain will work."
Brophyís reply was a time coming, and he could barely hear her hushed tones. "All right. Do you need me here?"
"No, I have enough. Iíll need to use Kenneth and maybe Raj."
"Done. Iíll be in my office."
The voices disintegrated in a flurry of movement. Jonathan eased back on his concentration, feeling the effort it cost him tug at his muscles. He refocused on Dannyís gray face above him, and saw that the young man was regarding him intently. For the first time, Jonathan saw a flicker in Dannyís eyes. Not fear, not the furtive look of the hunted, but...a different kind of awareness. As though Danny were asking him to understand....
A strange thrill went through him. Was it possible? By allowing him to eavesdrop without discovery, was Danny responding to that desperate question Jonathan had askedódays ago? Weeks ago? His last clear memory was of Dannyís silent tears, not even time to decide whether they were tears of disappointment or genuine anguish....
Was it possible? Was Danny reaching out to him past his wall of terror? Was something inside him growing stronger than his mortal fear of Brophy?
Again the young manís eyes flickered, responding to the change Jonathanís thoughts brought to his face. A slight movement, then something dry and cool touched Jonathanís hand tentatively, and he responded reflexively. His fingers closed and captured Dannyís hand, holding fast even as the young man reacted with a frightened start. Wonder filled him with a golden warmth, and somehow it was as if that same warmth flowed through the contact, human contact unmarred by the cold, mechanical precision of his daily ablutions at Dannyís hands. This was spontaneous, free of Brophyís iron control; this was strange and glorious and....
...too brief. Danny suddenly jumped, yanking his hand away as he glanced sharply over his shoulder. The broken contact felt like a physical ache, nearly pulling a cry from him to have the wonderful warmth wrested from him so cruelly, too soon. His fingers twitched, trying to reach out to recapture the loss, but Danny had retreated to the far end of the table, cowering from the sly, lingering look Terri sent after him as she came to stand at Jonathanís side.
Her gaze slid back to MacKensie, widening slightly in surprise. "And how long have you been awake, I wonder?" she murmured, glancing suspiciously at Danny.
The young man flinched once, but as Jonathan watched, he straightened slightly, giving the woman a long, almost belligerent, almost sad look. Terri reacted with a violent gesture of dismissal, and Danny scrambled away, out of Jonathanís sight.
With a sniff, she looked down at Jonathan, a taut, unamused smile on her face. "Itís been a while since weíve had a chance to...talk. Hasnít it?"
He took a moment to note with interest the absence of any kind of reflexive reaction to her goading remark before saying quietly, "Have you missed me?"
Her smile wavered slightly. "Missed you? You flatter yourself if you think we really care one way or the other. Donít make the mistake of judging your situation in terms of your previous...experience. We donít need you. Youíd do well to remember that."
"You need something," he challenged, clinging to the calm she seemed unable to disturb, and reveling in the new strength it gave him. "I wouldnít be alive if you didnít."
"Is that what you think?" She feigned thoughtfulness, then gave him an arch look. "Youíve been an interesting diversion, Dr. MacKensie, sometimes an outright challengeóbut nothing more. The worst mistake you could make right now would be to wear out your novelty without making concessions."
"Concessions," he murmured reflectively. "What does that mean?"
"It means living the rest of your life free of fear. Free of pain."
He weighed his words carefully. "And what do I have to do to enjoy this wonderful freedom?"
Her eyes flickered with uncertainty before steadying behind her closed expression. "Open to us."
His hand clenched, but he ruthlessly suppressed any other evidence of the revulsion her soft words loosed. He grasped at the small bit of comfort he could take; it was the first reaction sheíd been able to coax from him, and he determined it would be the last.
Waiting until he was sure his voice would remain steady, he said at length, "Iím not sure I understand."
"Of course you do," she snapped. "Donít play games with me; you canít afford to make me angry, not now." She leaned over him, glaring down threateningly. "Our patience with you is rapidly thinning. Surely youíre intelligent enough to realize that youíre only causing yourself unnecessary discomfort." Pausing, a strange light came into her eyes, pulling a taut smile across her face. "Your friend was much more sensible."
He stared at her, feeling the unwanted frown betray his confusion to her. Silkily, she continued, "Oh, he was quite intractable at firstólike you. But he eventually saw things...our way."
It took everything he had to force his voice past flash-frozen muscles. "I donít believe you."
"And I didnít expect you too. Thatís why Iíve decided to let him tell you himself." Straightening, she glanced back over her shoulder long enough to call, "Kenneth, you can let Mr. Benedek come in now."
For a moment, silence; the door opened and closed, then the soft sounds of footsteps approaching. Watching Jonathanís whitened face with a smug smile, Terri spoke without looking back. "Mr. Benedek. Thank you for coming. Perhaps youíd be so kind as to talk some sense into your friend here."
Jonathan could only stare as Benny moved into his line of vision, coming to stand next to Terri. There was no trace of the terror that had marked his last memory of his friend; the face was smooth, unscarred by pain or fear, and there was almost...a smile? hidden behind the patently false expression of sympathy. "Sad shape, Jonny," he said with a click of his tongue and a sad shake of his head. "Real sad shape."
"Benedek?" he managed, nearly voiceless. He searched the benign face above him for some sign of coercion, some thread of hope, but saw nothing except a insouciant grin vaguely remembered from another lifetime.
The man ignored him, gaining Terriís attention with a slight gesture. "Heís still holding out?"
She sighed, feigning a patient shrug that Benny echoed, shaking his head in turn. "What can I say? I always kinda suspected he had a thing for pain, yíknow?"
"Apparently," Terri agreed readily.
"Hey, Jack, funís funóbut itís time to come out of the sandbox, okay?" Benny rested one hand casually on Terriís shoulder, gesturing broadly with his other as he went on, "Itís time to prove you got something between your ears thatís a step above genuine Italian marble. Weíre not going anywhere. Do you need the sound turned up a little more? We are not going anywhere. This is it, paisano. The choices are all gone, unless you really prefer having your lights turned off for good. Look at me. Am I suffering? Am I strapped down to a table like something out of a Saturday night Creature Feature? Am I getting my brains fried because Iím too stubborn to use them? Smarten up, Jonny."
His lightly cajoling words hung in the silence; Jonathan closed his eyes, silent refusal.
When Benny spoke again, the light tone remained, tinged with concern. "Come on, Jack. I donít like seeing you this way. Itís stupid, itís...itís not right. Come on. Itís not hard, and it doesnít hurt. Nothing will ever hurt anymore, I promise. Come on."
Unwillingly, he opened his eyes, staring at the man holding out a beseeching hand toward him. For a moment, just a moment, something inside him was stirred by the plea, responded to it, reached for it. His hand moved, and the simple pressure of the restraining strap disintegrated the moment under the hard heel of reality.
And something blurred before his eyes. He blinked, and the distortion began to crystallize, as though a facade was being peeled away....
He stared, letting his emotion drain away. With it, the deception unraveled, and he cursed himself for letting Terri use him, however unwittingly, to lay her trap.
Benedek smiled encouragingly at the steady look Jonathan gave him. "It makes sense, right? Think about it, think about it hard. Think about getting up from this table and walking out of here on your own two feet. Think about living like a real human being again."
"Iím...thinking," Jonathan admitted truthfully. "Iím thinking about...a lot of things."
Benny hesitated at the inflectionless voice, but his smile surged back confidently. "I know youíre a little uptight about Brophyís house rules, but you gotta admit that playing things her way really beats the alternatives. I promise you, itís over real fast, and it doesnít hurt at all."
He swallowed the thickness gathering in his throat. "What...what do I have to do?"
Relief lit Benedekís face with a radiant glow. "Way to go, Jonny. Itís a piece of cake, honest. All you have to do is relax, and Brophy will do the rest. Wait right here, Iíll go get her...."
"No," Jonathan said sharply, stopping Benny as he started to turn away. "Not...not like this."
Bennyís confusion cleared as MacKensie lifted his hand against the restraints. "Oh, right. Sure, I guess...." He glanced at Terri for confirmation. She hesitated, then nodded stiffly. With that, Benny reached down to remove the straps holding him to the table.
"You can move into the room next to mine," he said as he worked. "Theyíve got a great library here, and a satellite dish, and a couple of really great computer set-ups. And I swear they got a Cordon Bleu magna cum laude working in the kitchens, so the Nautilus will really come in handy." The last strap around Jonathanís head fell away. Benny stepped back with a beckoning gesture. "Youíll see," he said quietly. "It wonít be so bad."
Jonathan looked at the hand held out to him, aware of Terri standing just out of range of his vision: waiting. Bennyís smile faded as his head tilted questioningly. "Jonny? You coming?"
"Iím still thinking," he said quietly.
He laughed lightly. "About what?"
"About what you told me."
The smile vanished. "What I told you? When?"
"The first day. The last time I...saw you."
Silence. Benny drew a breath, appeared to think, then shrugged lightly. "I, uh...I was a little blasted that day, I donít think I remember...."
Benedek shifted, glancing at Terri for help. "Thatís great," he said, nervously clearing his throat. "Iím sure what I said must have been important then."
"You, ah...going to fill me in?"
Jonathan remained silent and Benny chewed his lip at the overt refusal. "I donít know how important anything I said in that condition could be, but, heyówhat difference does it make now?"
He relaxed his taut muscles, softening the hard look that seemed to be making Benedek squirm. "No difference," he agreed with a thin smile. "Not anymore."
"Great." Again relief poured into the man, lighting him from within. "Letís go, okay?"
Jonathan lifted his hand. "Help me."
Panic flashed in Benedekís eyes. He recoiled from the fingers reaching for him, glancing again at Terri.
"Benny?" Jonathan forced his voice to remain calm despite the frantic thudding of his heart. "Come on, give me a hand."
"Go on, Mr. Benedek," came Terriís taut voice. "Help your friend."
Benny seemed about to refuse, but swallowed, nodding tersely. "Sure thing," he muttered, and held out his hand.
Grabbing it, Jonathan put every bit of strength he had left into his grip.
Benny gasped as the bones of his hand grated. "What the helló? Jack, let go, damn it! Youíre hurting me, let go!"
He closed his eyes, tuning out the pain-filled voice, concentrating on the image that glowed in his mind, free of Terriís eloquent deceptions. His arm was fire, a conduit through which a strange burning coursed, spearing to the blackness that wore Edgar Benedekís guise, screamed with Edgar Benedekís voice, but was only...another lie. Iím sorry, Benny. He heard the cries change, and smiled with grim satisfaction. You tried so hard to warn me, and I almost...forgot. But I finally remembered, Benny. I finally saw the lie.
His head exploded, splinters of agony prying him from consciousness for a few precious seconds. When the red swirl finally cleared from his eyes, he saw Terri doubled over in a spasm of agony, clutching at her hand. He struggled up to see the figure huddled on the floor, moaning piteously. A glimpse only of a pain-wracked face, the visage behind Terriís lie....
Terri screamed, her eyes flashing pain and rage as she cradled her injured hand. Danny rushed forward, clutching at Jonathanís arm. He clung to the young man and slid from the table, letting Danny take his weight as his legs refused to hold him. Then someone took his other arm. Jonathan recoiled from the touch, but Dannyís grip tightened, silent reassurance. He glanced up, meeting the eyes of his new supportóBrian. And saw in the manís face a strange kind of peace. It became his last coherent image as his strength deserted him, taking his consciousness with it.
He emerged from the swirling fog to find himself huddled in the corner of his cell. The sound of remembered screams filled his head, and he exulted in the sweet warmth of triumph. I gave them pain, he crooned to himself, feeling the smile stretch across his face. They screamed, they cried out in agony, I made them feel what itís like to be the victim....
And he the tormentor? He shook his head, resenting the bitter thought threatening to dim the wonderful glow. But it clung, showing him an ugly truth: to revel in his accomplishment dragged him down to their level faster than anything they could ever do to him.
He sagged, grateful that he had long ago exhausted his tears. Once it had been a healing thing, but now...now it would only be a costly distraction, and he couldnít afford distractions. Not now. Not when he could think clearly for the first time in longer than he could remember. And he had to think, had to figure out what had happened, what was happening, what was going to happen....
What do I know? That theyíre desperate and running scared, yesóbut why? Why?
Think, MacKensie. The answer is there, somewhere. Logic. Youíve built your entire life on a foundation of logic, and theyíve tried their damnedest to kick it out from under you, but itís still there, itís got to be there, because they havenít won....
His fingers curled, reacting to his desperate attempt to pull the pieces together into some coherent whole. Logic. As long as I have that, I have the only freedom that matters. Think, MacKensie. Think.
Brophy tried to break me and failed. They want me to surrender...my free will? They canít take it by force. They canít kill me....
His throat constricted with bitter memory. Oh, godóBenny.
He waited until his breathing eased before daring to pick up the threads of this thought. At least I know you didnít fold. That...that thing with your face, your voice was damned good, but I finally saw the lieóthanks to you. Godóif I knew what you risked trying to warn me, if I knew....
At least I know youíre not dead, but...Iím not sure I should be relieved about that.
Movement distracted him, and he turned his head to squint up. Danny leaned down, setting his meal tray in front of where he lay on the floor. As the young man straightened, Jonathan reached out, stopping himself just shy of grabbing Dannyís arm.
The man started as Jonathanís hand closed lightly on his wrist, less a restraint than a mute plea. MacKensie felt tension melt from Dannyís muscles, and that glorious warmth seeped once more through the point of contact, shunting weariness and despair from its path.
Danny brought his eyes up to meet Jonathanís searching gaze, but did not flinch away. And what had once been a flicker was now a tiny flame: intelligence...and life.
"I know...I know you can hear me," Jonathan said, a wondrous realization. "Danny, pleaseóyou have to tell me. You have to tell me if you know where my friend is. Dannyóplease."
Fear blazed in the watery eyes. Danny pulled away, but Jonathan tightened his grip in time to prevent his escape, clinging with all the desperation the golden warmth hadnít touched. "Danny," he pleaded. "Danny, all I want to know is if you know where he is. Nod yes or shake your head no, just...just tell me. Please."
Trembling, Danny strained against Jonathanís grip. He met MacKensieís searching gaze, and with an effort finally brought his head up and down once.
Relief washed through him, but whether for the brief news of his friend or for the first moment of real communication with his mute custodian, he wasnít sure. He held on as Danny tried to tug his hand free. "No, wait," he begged. "Do you...do you know how he is? Danny, is he all right? Please, tell meóis he all right?"
Dannyís eyes brimmed, a plea to be released, but Jonathan held fast until the young man, in pain, tersely shook his head.
Shock stole the strength from his hand, and Danny broke away, scuttling just out of Jonathanís reach. But he didnít notice; didnít care. He felt tears heíd thought he no longer had sting behind closed eyelids. Why did I ask? What answer did I really expect? Of course heís not all right. If he were to ask that same question about me at this point, the answer would be no different, so what did I hope to gain by asking?
He rolled onto his back, willing his muscles to uncramp as he opened his eyes to the harsh white light. Heís alive. I know that much. He doesnít know that Dr. Moorhouse is searching for usódoes he? He promised to hang on until I came for him, but...I have no idea if he kept that promise, or even if I should really expect him to....
Until I come for him. If ever. How long can I live like this?
How long have I lived like this? Days? Weeks?
And why are they letting me lie here thinking, actually thinking, when only a short time ago I dropped two of their own? They subjected me to constant electro-shock sessions for less than that....
He forgot to breathe, seizing a wonderful thought. Punishment. Of course. Punishment doesnít work on me anymore. It just makes me more stubborn. More...resilient.
They arenít doing this for revenge. Theyíre doing it...to defuse us.
The white light blinded him, but he no longer cared, lost in an embrace of joy. Of course. Of course! I should have seen it sooner, but they kept me from thinking, prevented me from seeing the truth, of course! Benny...Benny, you were wrong. We donít belong here. Weíre not dead, dear lord...weíre alive, weíre alive and thatís why they hate us. Thatís why they fear us. We should be dead, but weíre alive and Lon and Harmon are the ones who are dust and...theyíre confused, theyíre afraid. Afraid of us.
Thatís why weíre here. Theyíre afraid of us because even they canít comprehend the full scope of this impossible thing we did by surviving Harmonís venue. They put us in a cage and studied us and tried to find our secret, only now theyíre running scared because instead of isolating us, theyíve brought the disease into their own midst....
No. No, weíre not the diseaseóthey are. Their existence is a blight, a horrible mutation, rampant and unchecked, deadly...and invulnerable. Until now. We didnít succumb. We survived. We overcame. We...won.
And now we are to them as a reagent...no, no, like an antitoxin, destroying them and shaking their trust in their own invincibility. And they canít simply dispose of us because...because....
I still donít know why. I donít know what they did to you that brought them the realization that we have to stay alive.
Weariness pulled at his eyelids, slowed his breathing. He fuzzily debated giving in to sleep. He resented having to disrupt his own promising train of thought, but his abused body threatened to call the question on him, and he was too sick of fighting to consider battling himself. With a long sigh, he slid into a light doze.
In the soft shroud dropping around his senses, he detected movement and dismissed it as Dannyís departure. He snapped awake as a strange electric sensation trilled up his arm. His hand jerked up, probing for the sourceóand contacted something dry and warm. Dannyís hand.
The young man crouched next to him, his expression rapt as he sought to curl his fingers around Jonathanís palm. The warmth increased, soft and wonderful, pulsing like a third heartbeat between them. Jonathan stared at Dannyís growing smile, open-mouthed, and realization sent his heart thudding wildly in his chest. All this time he thought Danny was the source of this golden glow, this reservoir of hope and strength. Only now did he see the truth: the warmth emanated from him, and Danny was drawn to it like a moth to a flame.
Or an addict to...a narcotic?
The once-lackluster eyes shone as Danny clung to Jonathanís hand. Before MacKensieís eyes, he saw Brophyís control melt in the gentle fire, caught just a glimpse of a manís soul stirring in the depths. And then the moment was gone as that newly roused awareness panicked. Danny yanked his hand back, clutching it to his chest as he bowed his head with a tiny whimper.
Whimper? A sound?
Exhaustion sloughed from him as he pushed up, staring at the huddled man before him. "Danny?" he ventured, reaching out but not quite daring to touch. "Danny, are you...are you all right?"
Not a question he would have asked even an hour ago, but now...now there was a hope, however slim, that he would be answered. And that he would care about the answer....
"Danny?" He touched his hand softly to the manís shoulder, not letting the resulting shudder shake it loose. "Itís all right. Itís...."
Useless words. He slid his hand down Dannyís arm, settling a firm grip around the thin wrist until the muscles relaxed and the trembling subsided. Danny raised his head, staring down at his captured hand, again letting the mildly electric sensation pass between them. He shot Jonathan a brief, grateful look before lowering his gaze again, his smile growing as he reveled in the glow.
And another glow grew from the parent fire, and the last of Jonathanís despair melted away as he saw life return to Dannyís eyes.
His legs felt like solid sheets of flame, and the pain was wonderful. Just getting to his feet had taken an eternity, but although the wall was still essential support, he was standing. Drenched with perspiration, gasping with the spasm of agony his exertions brought crashing down on himóbut standing. And as he leaned against the wall, the ache eased from his bones, but in its place came a numb, watery wobble. Perhaps walking should wait for another session, he decided. Letís just see how long it takes before I fall down.
He closed his eyes, concentrating on outlasting his shrieking muscles. For his body to have lapsed into this pathetic condition...he refused to think about it. All he knew was that it had been at least a day since he last left the shock treatment room. Five times he had tensed as the door opened, half-expecting Danny to carry in the tray containing the hated canisters and razor. But three of those times Danny brought only food, which he had picked at without appetite; twice heíd brought the cart with supplies to tend his bodily functions, including his daily change of clothing.
Jonathan refused Dannyís help, and the young man, who had withdrawn back into his shadowed, frightened shell after that first tentative breakthrough, didnít protest. Nor did he offer assistance, huddling in a corner to watch with wide, haunted eyes as Jonathan painfully struggled through the sponge bath and clothes change. All efforts MacKensie made to communicate were rebuffed by silence.
But heíd seen the light still burning in the young manís eyes. Only fear held him back, and only Danny could get past that fear. Jonathan had to wait and hope that the stirring in Dannyís soul would eventually take root and shatter his bonds of terror.
Should I wish that for him? The fiery ache in his legs receded, making it easier to breathe and to think. What will Brophy do to him ifóand whenóshe sees that light in his eyes? Sheíll kill him without hesitation, and no more mercy than Harmon showed Lady Carmen....
He held his breath, wondering at the clarity with which a long-forgotten name came to him. Heíd never met the woman whoíd sacrificed her life to save them from Harmonís venue, but Benny held her in reverence, always speaking of her with a wistful eloquence that never failed to pull Jonathan into a grudging thrall. Why think of her now? Bitterness, perhaps? Silently damning a woman who had ultimately damned them? Or....
A parallel? Is that what I should be thinking about? What do I have in common with her? Only...stubborn resistance. At least....
A sound; the key turning in the lock. Jonathan tensed, staring at the door as Danny entered carrying....
Breakfast. He released the breath he hadnít realized he was holding. Danny nearly dropped the tray to see Jonathan on his feet.
He smiled despite recognizing the perversity of taking amusement at Dannyís surprise. Expecting me to make a bolt for the door? Iíll be lucky if I can take one step forward without falling flat on my face. Still...itís something to think about for the future....
Too quickly, the thought slid from heartening to bitter. And go where? Endless corridors, locked doors...Iíd be nothing but a rat in a maze. Good exercise, but thatís all. An exercise in futility if nothing else.
Danny set the tray down before stepping back to hunker in the corner. Despite his resolve to be patient, MacKensie felt disappointment tug at him. Still no sign of wanting to renew that brief moment of communication; he was beginning to think that it had been a one-time fluke. Awareness must have brought pain with it, and Danny retreated from that pain to the only safety he knew.
He pushed away from the wall, steadying himself with two fingers. His legs trembled violently, but held. Encouraged, he let his hand drop and breathed a sigh of relief when he remained upright.
For three seconds. He steered his tumble so that he fell within armís reach of the tray.
So much for the first experiment, he thought grimly, pulling himself up to a sitting position. The contents of the tray looked singularly unappetizing, but the simple pleasure of being able to feed himself forced his hand toward a carton of milk. After all, the muscles arenít going to cooperate if I insist on starving them. And his fingers proved his point, fumbling numbly at the slippery waxed cardboard. Then again, I never could get the hang of these things.
He took his time, studying Danny out of the corner of his eye. The young man regarded him with awe and trepidation. As Jonathan watched, he saw Danny glance down at his hands, then back at Jonathan. There was no mistaking the wistful look that softened the manís fear-drawn features.
Itís yours for the asking, Danny. You know that. Your own fear holds you back. I canít call you on that. I know all about fear. I know the pain it wields like a sword, and I know the scars that it leaves behind.
But I know about hope, too. More than most, and not just because of what I almost became. Months I lived like you, trapped by terror, surrounded by incomprehensible evil, and somehow I survived. Somehow.
How? His hand froze on the half-opened carton as he drew within, finally facing a question heíd never before dared to acknowledge. How did I survive? What hope did I have then? What hope did I think I have? I didnít know Benny was searching for me. I didnít know he had any clue what had happened, and even if I had knownóI thought it was hopeless. Hopeless. Yet...I survived, so there must have been hope. I didnít seek it, so it must have found me, wrapped itself around me and wouldnít let me go....
My god. Lady Carmen.
Milk splashed over his gray tunic as his hand jerked violently. Swiping at the wet spot, he felt the strange insight slip from his grasp, and sent his mind scrambling desperately after it. Then movement distracted him. He looked down to see Danny on his hands and knees, reaching out with a cloth napkin to daub at the spill on his knee.
He recoiled when he became aware of Jonathanís stare, but this time he didnít retreat. He tentatively held out the napkin and Jonathan accepted it, noting that Danny avoided physical contact. But he also saw that wistful look grow stronger, the awful yearning of a helpless...addict. After a moment, Jonathan held up his free hand.
Danny inhaled, then stopped breathing altogether, his whole attention fixed on Jonathanís hand. He shook his head, but strength failed him, allowing him only to stare, rapt.
Jonathan ventured his hand closer; only Dannyís eyes moved. "Itís all right," he said quietly, his fingers inches from the manís trembling hand. "Itís all right."
One finger twitched hungrily, then slid forward, almost touching. Then, a miracle: "You...hurt Raj."
Jonathan stared, open-mouthed, not daring to believe. But it was true, it had to be trueóheíd seen Dannyís mouth move, heíd heard the words whispered in a thin, almost child-like voice. Danny had spoken, and the fear that had held him silent now trembled in his voice.
"Danny?" he managed.
Shudders wracked him, born of the sheer effort he made to continue: "You hurt Raj. Bad. Heís...."
He listened in growing wonder. There was no recrimination in that voice, only confusion. Danny was struggling to comprehend the incomprehensible, and the obsession had finally grown strong enough to break through Brophyís iron control.
Raj. Raj? I donít...no, wait, I do. Terriís accomplice. I...hurt him? Burned him, or...?
Danny descended into unintelligible sounds. Intending to calm the young man with a touch to his shoulder, Jonathan reached out, but Danny anticipated him, grabbing and clinging to his hand with both of his. And the warmth surged up to flow between them, all calm and peace.
With a sound halfway between a sigh and a moan, Danny sagged. Jonathan caught and supported him until the more violent trembling subsided from the thin shoulders under his arm. The flow of gold eddied to stillness, enveloping them in an aura to which Jonathan opened with a thrill of awe. I know this. This is mine. This is my my secret strength, from that place no one could findónot Harmon, not Brophy, not even Lon. Yet the key came from another placeóanother life. The thought brought a touch of ice to his heart, and he stared down at Dannyís bowed head resting against his shoulder. I know who gave me the key. And I know now that this has been borrowed time.
His grip tightened on Dannyís frail hand. Has it been only selfishness thatís brought me this far? No, I canít afford to think that. I had to find...had to find the right person, the right time.
And now that I have, my time is over. The key is yours, Danny. Hope. A shining blade, the one thing of promise Brophy can never touch. Use it well, Danny, please. This is a precious as the life a woman sacrificed to forge it.
Can I do it? Can I let go just because I have to? He heard his breathing, loud but wonderfully steady in his own ears. I can. I can. And it doesnít hurt, he realized, a smile easing onto his face. Thank god, it doesnít hurt. Benny. Benny will understand, heíll....
No. I canít do that, I canít assume...no. I have to release him from his promise, I have to....
"Danny," he said, grateful that his voice remained steady. "Danny...tell me about Raj. Tell me whatís happening."
And Danny spoke, hesitant but steady, as though he knew that time was slipping from them. "He cries, all the time. Holding himself, like...like heís on fire, like heís burning up, but not Raj, not Raj but the thing inside him."
You understand about the possessed ones. The realization filled him with wonder. How could I have been so wrong about you? You werenít crushed, only frozenóheld in chains of fear. Why didnít I understand?
"The thing, it cries and...the pain and...and it screams."
He leaned on the last word and Jonathan understood. Screams shattering the silenceóBrophyís control.
Reagent. Antitoxin. Antibodies. Attacking the disease from without...and within.
It was too soon, but it was also too late; logic splintered in a thousand different directions, leaving him only a hollow ache that had to be filled. He kept his voice calm and steady: "You said you knew where my friend was. Were you telling me the truth? Danny?" He forced the young man to meet his gaze. "Danny, please. Do you know where he is?"
Danny deliberately hid the answer in his watery eyes. Fear again, but with a different color this time. He knows, Jonathan realized grimly. He knows what I want and heís deathly afraid...for himself? Or for me?
He tightened his grip on the young manís frail shoulders, and Danny wincedónot in pain, but in wonderful release as calm flowed like a gentle wave over them, washing the fear from his worn face. And left the answer glowing in bright tears: yes.
"Take me to him," Jonathan urged softly.
The torment in the young manís face was nearly gone, replaced by a light as unique as a signature scribed in gold. In Dannyís eyes, Jonathan finally saw the smile that had touched him in his darkest depths, the arms that had held him safe against his tortured dreams. You were right, Benny. She was...special.
Sheíll take me to Benny. Let her lead the way, Danny. Please. Sheís yours now; take her hand. Take mine.
And he did, no longer clinging, but firm and steady; unqualified agreement. His head moved up and down once, glancing uncertainly at Jonathanís legs.
With a taut smile of assurance, he leaned on Danny, levering up to his knees. The pain nearly sent him toppling back, but he held on, waiting until the throbbing eased with his breathing. I can do it. I can do it because I have to. Time is sliding away, I have to catch it and bring it back to my side. If I have to walk, I will. If I have to run, I will. And if I have to....
Danny supporting him by the arms, not letting him fall back an inch. Spent, Jonathan leaned against him, felt the manís heart fluttering beneath the thin tunic. Frail. Mortal. Yet...she lives, and maybe part of me has joined with that, bonded by fire. Perhaps Iíve misunderstood...everything. Perhaps it no longer matters. Understanding never mattered. Antithesis: instinct, free from the constraints of logic. You know that, donít you, Danny? Logic would have you begging for your life. Instinct holds you steady, calmóunafraid. I have to lean on you, Danny. If Iím allowed one last prayeródonít fail me, please.
Pleaseódonít fail me.
Sound marked their passing. Not just his labored breathing, or Dannyís gasps when Jonathan faltered heavily against himóbut sounds. A whisper here, a creak there, and all around them, distant cries muffled by locked doors. Where once Brophy absorbed with ease, now chaos slipped through the cracks.
How long? He willed himself to slow down, feeling his muscles threaten to quit. How long has it been falling apart? Was there an advantage I could have pressed if Iíd known?
A dangerous thought, not recognized quickly enough, and he stumbled with it. Danny leaned him against the wall, watching him until Jonathan, breathless, waved for them to continue.
No. Dannyís time is now. My fight would mean nothing without...this final victory. One battle, finished; and one warrior left to go on to the next field. Thatís how it should be. How it must be.
My god, listen to me. Iím only kidding myself if I think I can go quietly, serene in the knowledge that the torch has been passed. Admit the truth, MacKensie: what you really want to do is to bring something down with you when you go.
He hissed as he stumbled again, losing all feeling below his knees. Danny shifted at the critical moment, barely breaking stride, and Jonathan marveled at the incredible strength exuding from the thin, wiry body. No more thinking, he rebuked himself. Concentrate. Damn you, MacKensieóconcentrate!
Danny stopped, settling him carefully against the wall as he reached out with his free hand to open the door. He stopped Jonathanís movement, forcing their eyes to meet for a long moment. Fear again, another color. Jonathan felt it reach out, coil around his heart. He knew only that it was a mute plea of some sort, but for what, he couldnít tell. Was it merely that Danny didnít want him to go in, not for what might happen to them at Brophyís hands as a consequence, but for what he would find inside? Or was it something more, suggesting that the vague light flickering in his eyes was the color of guilt?
A memory, soft and bitter, cut him open as he stared into Dannyís eyes. This is Danny. Heíll be attending to your needs as they arise. To avoid any possible misunderstandings, please keep in mind that he takes his instructions only from me.
Should I have asked? Would you have told me? Does it matter? Does it really matter? Jonathan sought and found his hand, giving it a quiet shake. Itís all right, Danny. Nothing is your fault. I have nightmares behind me to help put the ones still to come into perspective.
He pulled forward, steadying himself with his hands on either side of the doorframe, only daring to look up after his feet were solid beneath him.
The same room, barren save for the iron cot and its occupant, sheet-covered and still. An I.V. tree was pushed off to one side; a depleted bag sagged from one arm, its tubing twined around the other appendages. By it stood a cart, containing rumpled cloths and odd bits of equipment Jonathan couldnít identify at a distance.
He formed Bennyís name, but the sound died in his throat. Coherence fled under the sudden assault of blood pounding in his ears, squeezed up from the cold hand closing around his heart. My god. My god.
His mind leaped forward, but his legs could not follow, and he would have fallen if Danny hadnít taken his elbow to provide timely support. He leaned hard, bleakly judging the distance between the bed and where he stood. Less than ten paces: by himself, an impossibility.
But support suddenly became restraint; Dannyís muscles tensed and locked. Staring only at the bed, it took Jonathan precious minutes to finally look off to the side of the room.
Terri stepped forward from the corner in which she had silently awaited their entrance. No longer the poised, cold thing he remembered from his sojourns in hell, this was evil half-loosed from its facadeóhe saw in the ravaged face a desperate thing trying to claw out of a mask turned prison.
She advanced awkwardly, body twisted in silent agony, still clutching at her hand as in his last memory of her. The wild eyes dominated her face, staring at him, filled with fire, filled with....
He recoiled, but Danny remained immobile. And only then did Jonathan see what Danny already knew: the flames in her eyes were not born of hate nor of evil seeking to destroy. She was like a wounded animal, spent, unable to move or to scream or to weep. She stared at himóand her eyes reached to him in mute, desperate plea.
And he responded, pulled to her by something he didnít understand. Danny resisted only a moment, then let go his fear with Jonathanís arm. He felt himself fall, couldnít recover, put out his hands....
And Terri was there, a move he didnít see, but she was there, and he clung to her to break his fall. Under his hands, warmth and softness, and then....
Her back arched as her mouth opened in a silent scream. The slight body beneath his fingers blazed with heat, searing his flesh to hers. His hands melted into her, and he felt no pain, felt no fear, felt...nothing as he reached in, reached through, sought, found, clung. Fire exploded from his finger-tips and it screamed, horrible and familiar, it screamed and perished at his hands.
He drew a breath, both a gasp and a laugh as death spewed forth life. A floodgate opened, drenching him with sweet coolness, and the thing he had set free embraced him, crying with gratitude and soft anguish as the receding fire dragged him away from her, dragged him back to....
...a small room, barren save for an iron cot and its occupant. He stared at it from his new perspective, seeing only a limp, white hand hanging off one side of the bed. Understanding came back in soft surges, as his senses sloughed off their protective barriers. He was on his knees, exhaustion bowing his head. Sprawled on the floor, his hand pinned under one of her shoulders, lay Terri, her eyes peacefully closed.
He feathered his fingers against her throat. A pulse trilled through the contact and he allowed himself to breathe again. The life that had briefly touched his ached in his memory, and he closed his eyes as he slid his hand down her arm, finding her hand to press it briefly. No more would he see her malefic eyes and the cruel hard smile she had relentlessly forced into his worst nightmares; he killed the image as ruthlessly as he had destroyed the evil behind it. When he opened his eyes, he saw peace.
And pain, etched into Dannyís face as he dropped to his knees at Terriís side, touching her face with a trembling hand. Jonathan watched him, bewilderment warming into slow realization.
Danny whimpered, resting his quivering fingers near her eyes as though willing them to open. Caught in the cracks between emotions, Jonathan felt his incomplete grip on anger dissolve to see genuine anguish shimmering in Dannyís eyes.
He caught Dannyís wrist, forcing the man to meet his gaze. In the haunted depths danced shame...and fear. I was right. You set me up, and now you...youíre afraid of me. Dear god, donít you understand what youíve done? Do you know what youíve given me?
But all he could manage to say was, "Who...is she? Danny?"
He drew a shaky breath, and for a moment it seemed that he would break. The moment passed in a mild tremor, stilled by his fingers slipping gently into Terriís hair, palm resting against her cheek. "Theresa," he whispered, stumbling over the hard sounds and the worse pain. "My...my wife."
Jonathan closed his eyes. His hand, still clutching hers, moved up her wrist; fingers probed gently, felt the slight impression of scar tissue on her arm.
Tears spilled down Dannyís face, long-suppressed grief wracking his thin body. "They...said weíd be together, they said...theyíd help us. But when the door closedóthey changed. They laughed, they...." He shivered, oblivious to the hand Jonathan rested on his arm. "They...made me watch. And they laughed. They laughed, oh, god...they laughed."
Jonathan listened, memory tearing at him with sharpened claws. "Danny," he said quietly, unsure whether the man heard him through his soft sobs. "Danny, sheís alive, but...."
Jonathan tightened his grip to keep him from flinching away. "Stay with her," he said, putting iron in his voice. "I have to...see my friend." Iím sorry. Iím so sorry. But I canít help you anymore, Danny. I canít even help myself.
His body proved his thought as he fell away, gasping as the move sent spears of fire through him. Using the bed frame, he pulled up, steadying himself behind closed eyes until he could breathe again. Strength; he needed as much as he could muster just to open his eyes again.
Bennyís head was turned toward him on the pillow, eyes closed. But there was no peace in the pallid, lax face. The flesh was colorless, save for deep purple shadows rimming his eyes. Jonathan reached for the manís exposed arm and nearly cried out to see dark bruises marring the skin. The contents of the cart on the other side of the bed burned into his mind. Vials and syringes. Damn them. Damn them!
Anger supplanted pain, and his weakened muscles firmed, tightening his grip around Bennyís hand. Limp, cold; unresponsive. But a pulse beat under his probing touch. Benny, you promised. You promised to wait. Please.
Warmth came to him, and he let it seep through the contact, warming the cool hand in his grasp. Closing his eyes, he sought with his mind, following the traces through icy darkness. He called, heard his voice echo through emptiness. And knew that something hid in the shadows, frightened and alone.
He let memory guide him unfalteringly through the blackness, spreading the light in his wake. Something stirred; something whimpered. Benny?
A barrier sprung up, and he knew heíd been found. Itís all right. He offered his hand, brilliant gold. Itís me. Jonathan. Itís all right. Take my hand.
It shimmered in the blackness, raw terror, but Jonathan persisted, and it responded. Creeping forward, it stretched out, tentatively searching. Mistakes were fatal; uncertainty was death. It could not afford to be blinded by lies and it paused just outside the circle of light, trembling.
A sigh, broken and desolate. No.
But hesitation marred the soft voice and fear melted in the fierce heat. Jonathan?
Take my hand.
No! This time a desperate wail, disintegrated sanityóa meaningless word. The hunted sprang forward, clinging to the light, pulling hungrily at its golden warmth. Jonathan enveloped and held it close to prevent it from running away.
It was terrible in the light, broken and twisted, but as it absorbed the glow, pain sheared from its battered shell, dark chrysalis. The life within unfolded, tears of wonder dropping like bright jewels, flashing in the golden light. It stared up at him, and touched him with its childlike question: Is it over?
Calm deserted him, and the chrysalis covered its face at the keening tremor. But the answer came with his new resolve, both sides full of uncertainty, but leading him to the same place: Yes. Itís over.
And it knew the quiet reply held no hope, was only...an answer, no more and no less. But it accepted with sudden serenity, and Jonathan eased his restraining grip, helping it...Benny...to stand, to face him.
The darkness melted away, pulling back the light with it, and he was staring down at Bennyís face, at his open, glassy eyes.
He opened his mouth to speak, but words were an intrusion threatening to shatter their tenuous contact, and he let them fade away, unvoiced. His questions were answered in the single, almost imperceptible movement Benny made with his eyes: life, recognition, and thanks.
You waited. Jonathan felt relief form a broad grin on his face. Thank god, you trusted me enough to wait.
Benedek made a sound, little more than a dry sigh. Shaking his head quickly, Jonathan tightened his grip on the manís hand, warning him to remain still and silent. And then he realized that Bennyís eyes still shone with bleak question: Is it over?
You didnít believe me. Yet you came out of hiding when I called. I donít understand....
He gasped as a rush of pure sound and movement, like a violent gust of wind heralding the tempest, hit him. Clutching Bennyís tensed hand against his chest, he froze, deliberately blocking his friendís line of vision.
Full circle. He closed his eyes and saw with his sixth sense, that acute awareness that was his legacy from a life in hell. He saw her standing in the doorway behind him; he saw her as a pulsing of power and malevolence. Once her palpable existence had been a cold whirlpool, inexorable and deadly. But now it was a wheel of fire, mad sparks spitting from a writhing center. And then a surge, the screech of a wild thing that he did not need ears to hear. He stiffened, fighting the internal assault. Not just a screech, but a wail torn from a black heart, the soulless keening of a mother for her lost child.
It pierced through him, through his contact with Benedek. The man gasped, a wrenching sound of despair that told Jonathan the terrible truth. The dark place in Bennyís mind had been his refuge from Brophy. By leading him out with half-formed promises, Jonathan had delivered him into her hands.
"She canít touch us," Jonathan whispered urgently. "Donít be afraid of her, not now. Listen to me. Weíre her destruction, you and I. Weíre the power now. She canít hurt us anymore."
Too late he heard the step behind him. A heavy pressure crushed his shoulder, pulling him back roughly. He stumbled, and something broke his fall, forcing him to his knees as iron fingers dug into the side of his neck.
Helpless pain bowed him, but his wrist was held tightly, pulling him up as the firm hand on his shoulder held him down. Blinking back the red haze filming his vision, he twisted against his captorís grip to look up into Brianís expressionless face.
A thin cry wrested him from his shock, bringing him another to see Brophy standing over Danny and Terri. This was not the coldly poised professional who presided over his worst nightmares. To the human eye, she appeared only disheveled and distraught. But his mind and his eyes went beyond the here and now, giving him a foothold in her reality, giving his perception another, darker layer. Her mask had been ripped from within, and the thing inside burst from the wounds in black flashes. One hand clawed as though torn between attack or raking at her own face, she stared wild-eyed at Danny, who hunched protectively over the woman he cradled in his arms.
Her head swiveled, bringing a terrible stare to bear on Jonathan. He met her gaze without flinching, embracing calm to hide the flash of joy the sight of her disintegration brought him. She inhaled sharply, fueling the furious fire raging within her as she sprang forward, whipping her other hand out of her skirt pocket to sweep toward his face.
She canít touch me was the thought with which he tried to quell his flinch, but reflexes won. When his eyes opened, he stared at the thing she held inches from his face and a cry of horror from his own throat reverberated against Brianís immobile grip.
"You," she hissed. "You."
He fought the sickness churning in his stomach, trying to find the strength to embrace as a victory this obscenity she forced him to see: her hand, little more than flesh clinging in decaying patches to blackened bone.
"You understand," she said, nodding with grim satisfaction. "Is that how you survived? You knew all along that your very existence was lethal to us."
How he wished that were true; that knowledge would have been a wonderful shield. "I survived," he rasped, fading under the relentless ache radiating from Brianís crushing hold. "I survived because Iíve already been to hell and back. There was never anything you could do to me. You brought this on yourself. You brought us here. And now you canít even kill us."
"Look at me," she snarled, flicking her nightmare hand near his eyes. "You think I canít touch you and once that was true. But look. Look. Look at me, and tell me whether your life matters anymore."
He saw his mistake burning in her wild eyes. She was already dead. Terri had been ripped from her, Raj was undoubtedly dust, and her controls were eroded beyond hope. Only blind fury, the last remnants of her erstwhile omnipotence, animated the corpse. Before corrosion sapped the last of her black life, she meant to have her revenge.
She wanted him to panic, to scream, to gibber and plead for mercy, but he had told the truth. There were no more nightmares left in him, and he stared at her with sudden, welcome calm. "Your pain will be worse," he said softly.
Her smirk radiated arrogance. "Your last mistake," she murmured, making a peremptory gesture with her good hand.
The pressure on his shoulder moved up his neck. Then Brian drove his fingers into Jonathanís throat.
He choked, gasping for air, but Brian twisted with his other hand, preventing him from struggling free. Before black mist formed across his vision, he saw Brophy watching him. No manic glee, only a steady urgency. She wanted his life to go before hers did; nothing else mattered.
Blood pounded in his ears as he clawed at Brianís hand. He was blind, mindless; dying. Numbed fingers slipped. His hand dropped to his side. Darkness coiled around him, pulling him down.
Then, suddenly, the pressure eased and his lungs exploded, greedily sucking in air. He pitched forward, but the once crushing grip around his wrist became supportive, and the fingers that had promised death encircled his head, bringing him to rest against Brianís side. Gasping, he had no strength to move, hardly enough to feel more than a twinge of gratitude for the return of his breath and his life.
From somewhere in the mad whirl of his ravaged senses he heard Brophyís shriek. "Kill him! Kill him!"
Jonathan tensed as the hand on his head moved, but it came to rest lightly on his other shoulder, mute protection and...silent apology. Brian? Hope surged through him, giving him the strength to curl his fingers around Brianís wrist. Youíre free. Look at her and see the truth, like Danny did. She canít touch you anymore. She canít....
He cried out as Brian stiffened with a ragged gasp. The man collapsed heavily, and Jonathan fell with him, clutching at the manís jacket.
No! The scream beat in his throat, but there was nothing to set it free, even as he groped blindly, finding Brianís arm and wrist. No, no, not like this. Youíre free, youíre finally....
Beneath his fingers, no pulse; beneath his sprawled arm, no breath. No hope.
He lifted his head with an effort that stole his breath, glared up at Brophy standing over them. In the midst of her disintegration, she smiled only slightly at his mute grief. He was still alive; her task was not yet done.
Then a sound, a broken voice searching in the dark. "Jonathan?"
Benny, no! He tried to force the words to his throat, but an invisible hand pushed him down, sprawling across Brianís body. As he lay stunned, Brophy stepped across him and approached the iron cot. Bennyís terrified gasp told him that she stood by his side.
"Your friend is dead, Mr. Benedek."
No. No! Itís a lie, Benny, please, you have to see the lie!
"You may see for yourself. Shall I help you?"
A moan of revulsion escalated into a thin, keening cry. "Itís true," Brophy continued smugly. "Jonathan MacKensie is dead. And you may join him at your convenience."
Her last word hardened and Benny cried out; with a hard stab of pain, Jonathan realized she must have flashed her corrupted hand in his friendís face to have pulled such a wrenching sound from him. He strained and felt the bonds give slightly. Benny, please, donít let her do this, please!
Another rasping cry as she continued her sadistic game and Jonathan mentally gritted his teeth, freeing himself a little more. I can do it. I have to do it. I can....
He fell back, numb, panting hard. A soft throbbing hiss filled his ears, but through it he heard Bennyís anguished cry. "No, he promised. Jonathan, you promised, damn you. You promised!"
His shriek shattered with a low groan, spiraling into a terrible silence.
No! Donít let her do this to you, Benny, donít let her win! Benny!
Madness took his mind into a frenetic dance, all pain and rage. It burst up, blazing, turning her hold on him to ashes in a blinding flash of heat and light.
Free. Iím free. But there was nothing left in him, no spark to even lift a finger enough to prove he could do it.
All thatís left is to wait for the rest of my life to drain away. The surprisingly coherent thought sat in soft comfort at the center of his being, and he closed his eyes to study it with detached interest. He saw himself only as a pale glow in the encroaching gloom; so familiar, so strange. I only had this much not so long ago, and I still brought Lon down with it. But... I had help then. Friends with strong hands. I had....
Oh, god. Benny? Did she kill you? Iím sorry. I didnít mean to betray you, I only wanted...oh, god.
And if there is a Godólet me see Him. Let me ask Him why. Why He allows this...this evil to exist and to prey upon us, and why it demands our lives as the price we pay to defy it.
The light flickered, and he watched it wane with a touch of regret. In the end, I just wasnít strong enough. Not enough to throw against her, like I did to Lon, like Benny did to Harmon....
The darkness rippled and he froze, searching warily. A softness, a seeking warmth wafted around him, bringing with it a light-burst of understanding. Life. Pulsing in the heart of a cold crystal, or radiating from the etched limits of a metal tie-clip, forced in by the moment of death, waiting for the right moment to blaze forth as the ultimate...weapon.
A swirl of bright light formed before his eyes. Brianís life force, spearing out to illumine the darkness, reaching to the far limits of its receptacle: Jonathan MacKensie.
He felt heat, but it brought no pain, only peace. Brianís life surged through him, throbbing with a joyful ache. A weapon, a glowing sword, bright with newness and aching for the taste of first blood. But it was only a weapon; he still had no strength with which to wield it.
Until she unfolded within him like a flower blossoming under the warm rays of the sun. He recognized her with a gasp of wonder, knew then that heíd been right. Sheíd always been there, his secret strength. Her life had been sacrifice to give Benny the weapon he needed, but sheíd spared just a spark to touch him even as heíd been dragged screaming into madness and darkness. That spark now become a flame, then a fire, twining with him, lifting him up. Iím the weapon now, he realized, calm as he used her strength to move his limbs. Iím the phoenix.
He was on his knees, Brianís lifeless body at his side. Before him, Brophy bent over the cot like a demented bird of prey. Inhaling, he sent a mental light burst at her, and she gasped, stumbling back under the blow.
She gaped, astonishment restoring her mask. Then an animal cry, like the scraping of rusted metal, exploded from the center of her being. Without moving, she coiled and released black tentacles, whipping out, diving for his heart.
He caught and held her off, laughing as the bright lives within him formed an unbreechable bulwark. Brophy gasped, pressing to the wall with terror blazing from her eyes.
Brianís voice, a sound Jonathan had never heard, whispered in his ear. Now.
He hesitated, feeling the warmth of Brianís life like a blanket around him, suddenly loathe to let it go. Who were you?
Please. Tell me. I have to know.
Brophy drew into an attack crouch. She meant to spend her last spark of life dragging him down with her, and with that Jonathan realized that Brian begged to be used, not to destroy her, but to save....
Tentacles slashed, and he barely formed the golden wall in time. But her black limbs found a niche, slithered in and coiled around him. He shrieked under the sudden, relentless assault. One life braced him while the other pulsed through his hands, desperately nudging him. Here. Use this. Now. Please.
Ropy fingers of black ice penetrated, twisting to anchor deep inside him. He shuddered, moaning as Brophy pulled him to her.
Life drained away into the darkness as she dragged him into her dark embrace. No feeling left, save for the tingling in his fingertips, where a flame still glowed. If he let it fade away, there would be no pain. No pain, anymore, only the darkness. Sweet oblivion; meaningless death.
Meaningless? I canít let Brianís death to have been for nothing. I canít. I...canít.
The flames caught, blazing until his hands glowed with fierce life. He grasped the black things crushing him, and with every bit of strength he could muster, from every part of his being, he sent the fire of three lives spearing deep into Brophyís black heart.
Her scream tore him apart. Abruptly released from the suffocating grip, he fell back, unable to breathe or to move, only to watch without feeling as she imploded. Blackness clashed with light, swirling around her to crush without mercy. In a moment, it was over, burning the afterimage of a glowing skeleton on his retina before he slid without a sound to the floor.
For a time, he stared up at the ceiling, wondering vaguely why he was not allowed the release of unconsciousness. He felt so empty; so cold. His allies were gone, and loneliness ached within the hollow shell heíd become. Nothing was left; no strength, no feeling. Brophy was destroyed, completely and irrevocablyóbut the victory was tasteless.
He closed his eyes with the thought that rest would coax strength back to his body. But with a tremor of fear, he recognized the strange chill seeping through him. Trauma. His ordeal was exacting a terrible price, both mind and body.
Help. He needed help. "Danny?" His voice was a hoarse croak, weak and thin. "Danny. Please."
Silence; only the soft hiss of his pulse in his ears greeted his desperate plea. Danny. Help me.
He opened his eyes, but could not summon the strength to turn his head. The light from above blurred and swirled, lifted him into a dizzying spin of pain and despair. Without help, he would die here, unable to move, unable to do anything except stare at the ceiling, waiting for the last thin threads of life within him to silently break.
Awareness grayed around the edges and time danced away from him in languorous reels, setting him adrift in welcome delirium. Death clothed in dark shroud, walking on two feet, searching the corridors...Iím here, Iím here, why donít you find me? Why is it taking so long?
An eternity passed. The silent dance eddied and died, leaving him alone and cold once more. Then a shadow fell across him, and he reached out to it with what was left of his numbed senses. If you are Death, pleaseótake my hand. Let me go.
It took his hand, no more than a pressure that he could barely feel, but it did not let him go. Instead, the shadow took on substance, becoming form and warmth, pressing to him. In vague confusion, he forced open his eyes, stared at the light-blurred shape above him. He heard soft sounds, distorted by distance, but familiar; so familiar.
Someone...someone is crying. Is it me?
Warmth increased, becoming a tight embrace singing with life and he settled into it with a sigh of relief. The glow suffused him, dissolving the last dregs of pain and fear within him, and he finally allowed himself to drift off into welcome sleep, lulled by the sound of a voice from his dreams calling his name, over and over and over again.
He drifted, skimming the sparkling burble of light and shadow surrounding him. Occasionally he prodded the perimeters, watching in fascination as they sprang back in liquid, languid waves. He considered them when he could summon the interest to do so, trying to decide whether the gray opalescent barriers were a protection or a prison. Beyond them he detected movement, sometimes sound. And voices, wonderful voices. He listened, not caring that he didnít understand the words, content merely to drink in those lyrical sounds.
A symphony had played only a short time ago, if time had meaning any more. When the last note struck and faded away, the grayness dimmed, leaving him feeling alone and frustrated. Safe within his shroud, heíd thought he would never want anything again, but now he desperately wanted to bring the music back, to have it wash away the little throbbing pain burning deep in his chest.
But the music didnít return, and he sighed and tried to shunt the yearning aside. It wouldnít budge, stinging him with insistent sparks, urging him to yield to its demands. He sought within him for relief, but needles of flame poked at him irritably, telling him to look up, to look out beyond the shimmering gray walls.
He resisted, but the golden threads swirled and twined, teased him with seductive promises. Gently taking his hands, they pulled him forward like playful children. He went with them because they wouldnít let him be afraid, even as he reached out to touch the gray film enclosing his existence.
Every flash of fear dissolved under the golden touch, and he felt the strands weave around him, covering him like a warm blanket. A smile touched him to recognize the trilling sensation. This was no longer an outside force bracing him; this was the fire from deep within himself. Stoked by others, perhaps, but now solely his own. It wouldnít abandon him and he couldnít let it go, and it would always be there, waiting to be used. And he needed it now, just to touch the gray shroud, let alone reach through it to the uncertainty waiting beyond.
He emerged slowly, pulling his resolve closer around him and the shroud slipped from him, gray gossamer, fading into the gloom. The scene sharpened and stabilized, showing him objects obscured in deep shadow surrounding him. The effort of making out detail made his head spin, so he retreated and waited for awareness to make itself known to him.
Lying down; that part was easy to figure out. Beneath one hand, a nubby roughness he didnít understand; the other hand eluded his search, lost in an annoying numbness starting just above his elbow. His head was raised up, propped against a cushioning softness. When he felt ready to expend some energy, he shifted to see if more pieces of the puzzle existed beyond his immediate peripheral vision.
He blinked, staring hard. A form, outlined in sharp relief by single light source off to the right, impressed light and shadow so strongly that his mind rebelled, refusing to help him out. And so he could only stare, confused and frightened.
But of what did he have to be afraid anymore? His nightmares had been burned out of him, save for one lingering afterimage that persisted in haunting him: the shadow of a man standing in the distance, who couldnít hear Jonathanís desperate shout for the cold wind that blew hard against them both. A vague ghost that always turned from him, disappearing into the mists, leaving him silent and alone.
But this shadow was near and no wind beat at him, no gray mists swirled around him. No fear, just curiosity, which gave him the strength to reach for the hand that seemed to glow under the white light.
He brushed the limp fingers with his own, and they responded with a slight twitch. With a growing smile, he traced the veined hand to where it hung awkwardly off the side of an armchair, tried to follow the arm into the shadows. But the hand chose that moment to come alive, its fingers curling tightly around his palm.
Movement in the shadows brought forth form into the light and he stared up at her, overwhelmed. A face from his dreams, one of the lost ones who had faded from his memory in his struggle to survive. She was here. It was impossible, but she was here, clinging to his hand, a thousand different expressions playing across her face.
He couldnít speak; no words would suffice even if he could summon them. All he wanted to do was look at her, savor her presence, and hope that if this were only a dream, that it would be his last, so that he would take this vision with him and his death would be eased by this wonderful glow.
Lost in wonder, it took him time to realize that his vision spoke, and he reached for the sounds, struggling to make sense of them. But when he did, they brought more confusion, for she was saying, over and over again: "Do you know who I am?"
Considerable effort went into making his mouth work, but her hands holding onto his made it easier. "Of course I do," he rasped, irritated by the flat, almost incoherent noises that came from his throat. "Dr. Moorhouse."
A smile lit her face and he basked in the glow. Moving his hand slightly, he explored the warmth of her hands pressed around his. Sheís real. Astonishment burst through him like a wild Roman candle. Sheís real. This isnít a dream. My godóthis isnít a dream!
Leaning over him, she freed one of her hands to touch the side of his face. He closed his eyes with a sigh, exulting in the giving warmth, wanting nothing more than to drift to sleep, lulled by her touch, her floral-scented presence. But fragments of memory prodded questions out of hiding, denying him peace until they were answered. His eyes fought against his effort to open them, and his throat choked on the words he struggled to form: "Where...where?"
She shushed him gently. "Youíre safe. Youíre safe now."
He frowned, confused as he sought vainly for the meaning of her words. I was dying. Safety played no part in that remembrance, and he strained to fit another piece into the puzzle. Dying. But ...someone came for me. Someone....
He stared at her, hardly daring to believe, but it was true. It had to be true. The life pulsing through the hand stroking his forehead was the same strong force that had embraced him as he lay waiting to die.
Her pain-filled eyes held the memory. The vision came to him, a stark image of her standing in the doorway, staring aghast at the human wreckage littering the floor, falling to her knees at his side, crying out to find that the body was still warm oh dear god am I too late too late too late....
She tried in vain to soothe him as he stared up at her with filling eyes. "You...you found me," he whispered. "How? How?"
"It doesnít matter how," she told him gently. "Youíre safe. Thatís all that matters."
"No," he said before he realized what lay behind the sharp pang that had forced the word from him. "Benny. Where...?"
He choked to see pain take possession of her face, not hidden quickly enough when she averted her face into the shadows. "No," he cried voicelessly. "No...."
"Heís alive," she assured him hastily. "Jonathan, heís alive. Heís here in the hospital."
"Hospital," he repeated weakly. "How...how is he?"
A flash of fear marred her already anguished expression and she tightened her grip on his hand. "Heís very ill."
He ignored the tacit plea in her voice, shaking his head. "Drugs. They used drugs, I donít know what kind...."
"Yes, we...know." She drew a breath, gathering strength to her voice. "Everything found in the room was turned over to the police, and they identified the contents of the vials."
"Police?" Confusion surged back, bringing nausea with it.
"Please, Jonathan. You need to rest. Please."
"No, I have to...I have know," he insisted. "How did you find me?"
Her expression changed as she turned inward, consulting a bitter memory. "I knew where you were. Iíve known for ...some time."
He wanted to say that he didnít understand, but he did and it hurt. "You saw me there...that day."
"Yes," she admitted, in pain. "But I couldnít do anything. She was very good, you know. Her hospital had an unimpeachable reputation. No one would have believed me and I knew I couldnít fight her alone. I had to wait. God forgive me, I had to wait."
Her voice broke as tears coursed freely from her eyes. She made a desultory effort to stem them, but after an awkward moment let them fall, taking his hand in a tight grip. In that tremulous contact he realized that God was not the only one from whom she begged forgiveness.
"How did you find me?" he asked. When she gave him a puzzled look for the question already answered, he said, "How did you know to come? And...." A thought struck, stunning him. "How did you get there so quickly?"
A thin smile edged some of the fatigue from her face, and she glanced down at his hand, which she lightly caressed as though barely willing to believe it was real. "I couldnít go back to Georgetown. I knew where you were. I waited...oh, I didnít know what I was waiting for, but I waited until I was sick to death of motel rooms, and then I waited some more. Angela stayed with me as she could, bless her. And thank god for Lizósheís held the department together single-handedly while I...." She looked into an inner place, drawing a heavy, quiet sigh. "While I held vigil for something I didnít know would ever happen. But it did, finally."
She lapsed into silence, and he waited, feeling bitterness tremble through the hand she held tightly. When she spoke again, her voice was lower, emotionless. "I made local contacts, including the police chief. He notified me when someone called in a report of a kitchen fire at the psychiatric hospital. It took some doing, but Chief Lester allowed me to ride up with him."
Her gaze came back to him, focusing with a bright light he looked upon in awe. "They wouldnít let me in, of course. And, of course, that didnít stop me. But before I could devise a way past the firemen and police, I was accosted by a young man. He seemed to know me, but he was too flustered to speak, so he grabbed my hand and dragged me around to a side entrance. He led me to you."
Silence again, and this time he became aware that she regarded him intently, waiting for him to speak. But he couldnít; emotion had stolen his voice.
"Who was he, Jonathan?"
"A friend," he managed. You didnít run away. Thank you. Thank you. "Where is he?"
She sighed. "I wish I knew. Lost in the confusion. Although he stayed long enough to show the police the locked entrance into the...other section of the hospital. The kitchen fire, by the way, was blatant arson. The police are looking for him...."
"No," he said firmly, resisting the thought that Danny could be made to answer for his actions in a world that wouldnítócouldnítóunderstand.
"Jonathan, they want answers about what they found in...that room. As well as Dr. Brophyís disappearance."
Inhaling sharply, he closed his eyes against the knifeís-edge of memory. She held on until he looked up again. "What happened to her?" she asked quietly, her eyes shimmering in the light.
"Gone," he managed, swallowing in a dry throat. "Sheís...gone. Destroyed."
Was that disappointment she hid by lowering her gaze? Had she longed for a final confrontation with the guised demoness who had unwittingly added Dr. Moorhouse to her list of scarred victims?
But the moment passed without comment, only a soft sigh as she looked at him again. "You need to rest."
"No, Iím all right," he protested, grimacing when his thickened tongue gave lie to his words. "Bennyówhat did they do...?"
She shook her head firmly. "No more. You need rest. Jonathan, youíve been comatose for five days. Pleaseórest. I ...canít promise it will get easier. There are questions that have to be answered. Questions that you must answer."
"No," he gasped, staring at her wide-eyed. "I canít. I canít."
"Jonathan, they found dozens of people in that hidden section of the hospital. They need help desperately, and the doctors donít have any idea how to treat them. Only you can tell them what happened."
A sound slipped past the iron gates of his will, and she brushed her fingers against his beading forehead. "Iíll be here with you," she whispered. "Jonathan, Iíll be here."
You donít understand. Please, you donít understand. He couldnít summon the strength to shake his head, let alone speak as he stared up at her. With his eyes, he traced the lines in her face, seeing in them every hour, every minute of her vigil. Hope warring with despair and, yes, grief had left those scars. I thought nothing could hurt me any more, but I was wrong. I can give the doctors the answers they want, if theyíll believe meóbut what about you? How will I be able to tell you what Brophy did to me while you were forced to wait?
She soothed away every attempt he made to do anything except rest. With a long sigh, he succumbed, drifting into a sleep unmarred by nightmares or dreams, save for that one vague image of the shadow of a man, lost in the far, unreachable distance.
He awoke to the sound of his name, softly spoken. Confusion melted away with the smile the gentle voice brought him, and he opened his eyes to sunlight filling the room with a brilliant white glow, and Dr. Moorhouse still holding onto his hand. Two women, white-clad strangers stood by, while another fussed with an I.V. that he foggily realized accounted for his left armís stubborn numbness, but didnít explain why he could feel nothing from the waist down.
"Jonathan, this is Dr. Penecoste. Sheís your attending physician, and she needs to ask you a few questions."
But Dr. Moorhouseís eyes said something else, and he read them carefully. This was neither the time nor the person to offer the true story. He nodded his understanding and she smiled with relief, releasing his hand and stepping back to allow the doctor to come forward.
He got through the interview with little difficulty, nodding as she outlined his condition and pretending confusion whenever she delicately probed for the events of the recent past. In time, Dr. Moorhouse was able to persuade her that all he needed was more time and more rest, and with that agreement, the doctor excused herself.
Dr. Moorhouse waited until the nurse had silently departed before moving back to his side. Almost of their own volition, his fingers lifted up, seeking. With a smile, she took his hand in a firm grip once more. "Iíve sent for Dr. Edwards. You must tell him everything."
He frowned, confused. "Why Dr. Edwards? Why not a psychiatric doctor from the area?"
"For the simple reason that yours is an incredible story. Dr. Edwards has been the closest to the situation, so I believe he would be more easily convinced that you arenít suffering paranoid delusions."
"He wonít believe me. How could he? Thereís no proof, nothing to...."
"He already knows something is drastically wrong. You disappeared from his facility without a trace. Several patients reported seeing an ambulance and a black sedan in the driveway, but thereís no record of either vehicle entering or leaving the grounds. The security guards swore that the gates hadnít been opened since the day employees left the afternoon before."
His eyes lowered, looking into the depths of a black memory. She folded her other hand over his wrist. "Heíll believe you. Heíll believe us. We must have faith."
Courage seemed to slip from her words directly to his heart. He mustered a smile of thanks, and she returned it warmly.
"Benny," he said, stiffening as a sharp memory slid in sideways. "You havenít told me. How is he? What...what did they do to him?"
He felt her muscles go taut, saw the shadow return to her eyes. "It appears that he was kept heavily sedated for an extended period of time," she told him quietly, searching his face. "It also seems that several combinations of drugs were used with no apparent purpose other than to render him unconsciousóor...."
She held on until he could speak again. "Can they help him? Will he be all right?"
"I canít answer that. Iím not sure anyone can. Physically, heís out of danger, but...."
She couldnít finish, averting her gaze from his. But he no longer saw her. He was back in a small room, hearing a terrible scream of anger and terror and anguish and betrayal. He shut his eyes tightly, unwilling to let it stab at his heart again.
The bed behind his head lowered and he didnít resist, seeking the refuge of dreamless sleep to let light and shadow play around him like a welcome, gentle breeze.
Dr. Moorhouse woke him for the arrival of Dr. Edwards, who appeared uncharacteristically dour and drawn. He greeted them both perfunctorily, wincing as he shook hands with Jonathan. As he withdrew his hand, MacKensie saw for the first time how the bones of his fingers stood out in high relief against colorless flesh. He could only wonder how his ordeal reflected on his face and body to have elicited that reaction from a medically trained professional.
Settling in a chair at the foot of the bed, the doctor withdrew a tape recorder from his briefcase. "As I understand this, Iíll be helping you draft your statement for the police. With your permission, Iíd like to tape our interview."
He froze when Jonathan responded with an abrupt, "No."
Dr. Moorhouse recaptured Jonathanís hand as she rose to her feet, giving him a significant look well hidden from Dr. Edwardsí eyes. MacKensie defied her for only a moment, finally acceding to her mute plea with a tired nod. "Iím...Iím sorry, Dr. Edwards," he faltered, rubbing at his forehead.
"No need to apologize. Youíve suffered a terrible ordeal. I understand that. And if the recorder makes you uncomfortable...."
"Perhaps Dr. Edwards has the best idea," Dr. Moorhouse interjected firmly. "Youíll only have to tell you story once."
She was right, but she was wrong and confusion made his head hurt. He lowered his gaze to her hand still tightly entwined with his, and decided to concentrate on that. He would allow himself to be guided by the strength pulsing from that deceptively frail hand, and follow where it led and never let it out of his sight again.
"The statement is not the only reason I asked you to meet with us, Dr. Edwards," she began calmly. "As youíll recall, I told you that someday I hoped to be free to give you a full explanation. You deserve to know the entire story. I will warn you that what we have to say will sound...well, incredible. But itís the truth. God help us allóitís the truth. We should start at the beginning. Six months ago."
With her clean, terse oratorical skills, she outlined the story as she knew it. Jonathan listened, grateful that she willingly took that burden from him. Dr. Edwardsí face went from interest to fascination to incredulity and from there to expressions that defied description. Does he believe this story? Dr. Moorhouse glossed quickly over the pitched battle in Harmonís red tent, but he closed his eyes as the memory cut him. It doesnít matter if he believes, not to me. But maybe he could help the other victims. Here as well as in Lannerton. If he believes. If he doesnít run away screaming.
"He called me...that morning." Her voice faltered as she glanced back at Jonathan. "In the midst of informing me that Benedek had disappeared, he stopped. And I heard a voice, a womanís voice in the background, telling him to end the conversation. Which he did, quite abruptly. Thatís when I called you."
Dr. Edwards leaned forward, but whether in absorbed interest or absolute incredulity, his blank expression gave no hint. Something lurked behind the manís eyes, and with a start, Jonathan recognized it: the same shadow of lingering guilt that haunted Dr. Moorhouse. Of course. We disappeared from the Whitewoodóhe considered both of us under his care, his responsibility.
He cleared his throat, giving them both a significant look in turn. "Before I tell you anything more, I have to say this. What happened couldnít have been anticipated. It also couldnít have been prevented. I know this for a fact. There was nothing anyone could have done to stop it. Nothing."
The psychiatrist lowered his eyes. Dr. Moorhouseís face was gray, eyes still filled with self-reproach and bitterness, prompting Jonathan to add softly, "And it ended the way it had to end, when it had to end. No sooner, no later."
She met his gaze, and after a long moment, smiled quiet acceptance. Encouraged, he began his story, regretting that he could not achieve Dr. Moorhouseís polished level, but amazing even himself at how little he stumbled and faltered.
Dr. Edwards listened in his blank silence; when Jonathan related his experience in Brophyís office, he felt Dr. Moorhouse go still and cold. She remained so until he described the final battle ending with Brianís death and Brophyís destruction.
Jonathan looked up in the growing silence, waiting for Dr. Edwardsí reaction. Believe us, he prayed. Please, you must believe us. Donít let me have hurt her for nothing.
At length, the man shook himself as if only just becoming aware that the silence waited for him. With a heavy sigh, he turned off the tape recorder.
Something about the action drove fear into Jonathanís heart. "You donít believe us, do you?"
Dr. Edwards glanced up, startled. "Believe you? Of course I believe you. I donít really have a choice, do I?"
"Choice?" Dr. Moorhouse echoed. "Iím...Iím afraid I donít understand."
He looked drawn, almost ill as he passed a hand over his face. "After you called me last week to tell me that Dr. MacKensie and Mr. Benedek had been, ah...rescued, I contacted the staff psychiatrist here at the hospital. It seems that of the patients and staff evacuated from the Jefferson County facility, only a handful were capable of speech. Most of them appeared to be the doctors and nurses who had worked in the legitimate section of the hospital. They all, without exception and only a few colorful variations, told the same incredible story." He rose, pacing the room restlessly. "Itís the theory of the doctors here that for some unfathomable reason, Dr. Brophy made extensive use of hallucinogenic drugs and/or hypnosis to implant artificial psychoses into patients and staff alike. Leading one to wonder, of course, just what kind of monster Dr. Brophy was." He paused, looking back at Jonathan. "Of course I believe you. Youíve just given me the only explanation a sane human being could possibly accept."
It felt good to sleep, free of catheter and I.V., free of sedatives, free to curl up on his side and dig into the soft warmth of pillow and blanket. His muscles cooperated for once, subsiding to a dull throb down from the screaming ache forced on them by strenuous physical therapy hours before. Even the silence and the darkness ceased to threaten him, because both were his by choice.
And the dreams were his as well, little more than cartoon images of people, places and things of recent memory, pleasantness and absurdity, laughing away the faint tendrils of anxiety occasionally seeping into the kaleidoscope. He was still capable of fear, he could never deny that; but it would never rule his life again, remaining merely a ravening beast, safely tethered.
But in the midst of the colorful tumult, the shadow returned. Light and sound slowed and stopped, invisible eyes turning toward it in question. In the silence, the specter hovered, quivering as though aware of the unwelcome attention.
The dream images shifted, parting to allow him to try, as he tried so many times before, to reach the shadow, touch it, speak to it. But it darted back into the cloying mists.
No! Always before his cry had been one of anguish, but this time it was colored by anger, almost petulant. Damn it! Iím tired of this! Either come back now or go away and stay away. No more games!
A rush of wind swirled around him, bringing wisps of shadow into a spin, coalescing into a solid form before him. At first no more than a dark outline, filled in by shades of gray, growing denser, molding and shaping until the shadow became real, resolving into a man, a man with haunted eyes, staring at him, staring at him until those burning eyes began to sear into his soul, staring until....
...he woke with a start, panicking for the moment it took him to place himself in time and space. Whitewood. Iím at the Whitewood, Iím...in a private room, Iím...Iím safe. Iím safe.
It would take some time before his pounding heart allowed him to sleep again, so he leaned over to turn on the bedside lamp. His hand on the switch, he froze to see someone sitting in the chair a few feet away, details lost in the gloom. I thought we persuaded Dr. Moorhouse that I didnít need to be watched any more. Irritated but at the same time amused, he turned on the light, ready to take the woman to task.
"Hey, Jack." Edgar Benedek crooked a grin. "Didnít wake you, did I?"
He stared, blinking only when the impossible vision refused to fade away. But Benny was still there, still smiling, only now he added an eyebrow arched in question.
"You...how...?" He sat bolt upright, looking from Benny to the closed door and back again. "What...? How...?"
"Laconic incoherence," Benny mused, nodding. "Now Iím sure this is the right room."
He swallowed hard, clearing his throat. "Youíre...youíre all right?" he said weakly.
"Well...." He squinted, exaggerating uncertainty. "Letís not get into that just yet, okay? I really stopped by to see how you were doing."
Leaning forward, he clutched the bed covers closer to ward off a sudden chill. "How Iím doing?" he echoed faintly. "Iím not sure I...I donít...wait a minute. How did you get out of the infirmary and into a locked ward?"
Bennyís eyes widened. "Oh, that explains it. Right. Infirmary. Okay, I can hack it. Nowóexactly where is this infirmary? I mean, this place looks a little familiar, but itís kinda hard to tell with all the lights turned out, yíknow?"
The chill deepened, and he began to tremble under its assault. "You...you arenít...oh, god." He drew a shaky breath. "You arenít real, are you?"
"Relative term, reality," he shrugged.
"Iím dreaming." His voice firmed with resolve. "Of course. Iím dreaming."
Bennyís insouciant smile faded with the shake of his head. "But I tell you whatóif it means the difference between a mondo-anxiety attack and a civilized conversation, then youíve got my vote: youíre dreaming. Personally, Iíd have opted for Sophia Loren, but different strokes for...."
"If Iím not dreaming...." He paused, letting panic drain from his voice before continuing, "If Iím not dreamingó whatís happening?"
His face changed. "Oh. Oh, you thinkóof course he thinks, Benedek, you schmuck. Hey, listen, Jack, Iím sorry, I didnít mean to send your blood pressure into the stratosphere. Iím not a ghost, honest. Well, not in the you-know-what sense of the word."
"Then in what sense of what word?" he asked quietly.
"Itís more like, oh...astral projection, only itís closer to...well...." He shrugged, sighing. "Iím here but Iím not here and Iím not on the last train for the coast, can we leave it at that?"
"Iím...Iím not sure." He forced himself to inhale and to release his white-knuckled grip on the blanket. "Can we?"
Bennyís eyes narrowed before he replied softly, "For nowówe have to. At least until...well, until I get a few things cleared up. Letís start with the one you havenít answered yet. What infirmary where?"
This is insane. You arenít real. You canít be real. What are you doing to me? His head hurt. Pressing his fingers to his temples, he answered in a tired voice, "The Whitewood."
"Uh-huh. So how did we get here, anyway?"
"Dr. Edwards arranged for us to be transferred here from Newport General Hospital."
"From..." He stopped, hand slipping down to cover his mouth. "Wait a minute. Wait a minute. What...whatís the last thing you remember?"
Benny made no reply, but the answer was in his eyes, which he averted from Jonathanís questioning gaze. He opened his mouth to speak, stopped, then exhaled slowly, shaking his head. "Why?" he said, his voice no more than a thin sigh. "Why did you call me out? Didnít you understand? I was hiding from her, I was hiding from her in the only place she could never find me. She tried, though." He laughed bitterly. "Oh, boy. Did she try. But she could never find me, no matter how long she searched or how deep she dug, or how many drugs she pumped into me to float me out. And then you made it easy for her, didnít you?"
He stared at Jonathan, fury blazing from phantom eyes. Furyóand hate, springing out to stab him with cold needles. "Why?" he hissed. "Damn itówhy?"
Jonathan met his gaze calmly, willfully fighting back the hard knot pushing into his throat. "You wouldnít have come out if Iíd told you that she was still viable."
The silence crackled with the fire in Bennyís eyes. "You bastard."
"And what does that make you?" he snapped back. "You believed her, damn it. You believed her."
"What was I supposed to...?" He choked back his anger, realizing what heíd been about to say.
"Okay," he muttered after a painful silence, unable to look at Jonathan. "Okay, so...so I guess I...." Inhaling sharply, he shook his head. "Okay. So weíre a couple of bastards. Swell. Now tell me why you did it."
He spoke softly, without hesitation. "Because it was over."
Benny stared at him incredulously. "You belong here, you know that? Youíre nuts."
"Listen to me. Just...listen to me. There are things that happened that you donít understand...."
"You always did have a firm grasp of the obvious, Jocko," he growled.
"Shut up." He glared at the nonplussed vision before him. "Damn it, shut up and listen to me. This is hard enough without you making it harder."
Benny seemed about to explode, but abruptly backtracked, as though the truth of Jonathanís words had hit him sharply on the back of his head. Subsiding, he gave a sullen nod of agreement. "Fine," he muttered. "You explain things and make it all better. Go ahead. You talkóIíll listen."
Of course you will. Thatís why youíre here, isnít it? Eyes fixed on his hand gripping the blanket, Jonathan told his story one more time, this time for the person he knew would understand without reservation, without hesitation. But not without emotion. He snuck a look at Benny, and saw that this too-solid looking shade stared down at hands clasped between his knees.
"Thatís why I came for you," he finished, exhaling slowly. "It was over for us, Benny. At least...I thought so at the time. It...backfired on me, I didnít expect her to go after you to get to me, I didnít...I didnít...damn. Iím sorry. Iím sorry, all right? I didnít think, Iím sorry."
"Think?" Benny glanced up, face unreadable in the light from the bedside lamp. "My god. I canít even figure out how you managed to survive, so you can dump the apologies for faulty brain connections, okay?"
Bennyís anger was gone, and for that Jonathan realized he should feel relief, but...somethingís wrong. Heís...trying to tell me something. Heís been catatonic since resurfacing from that drug and shock-induced coma, but somehow heís figured a way to send his mind out for the answers he needs. Or to say what he needs to sayóand I donít think I want to know what that is.
Benny spoke again, rerouting Jonathan from his bleak suspicions. "I shouldíve figured there was a reason why you look like forty miles of bad road. Some help I turned out to beórunning and hiding like...like...."
"You had to," Jonathan told him firmly. "What else could you have done? Benny, she went after you first for a reason. You werenít healed yet, she knew that. You did what you had to do to survive. If you hadnít kept away from her, sheíd have either ripped you to shreds or...." He paused, drawing a breath into his suddenly depleted lungs. "Or used you against me. And me against you."
Benny exhaled after a torturous silence, shaking his head ruefully. "You know what really galls me sometimes? When you make too much sense for my own good."
He smiled, and it almost felt right. You listened. You trusted me enough to really listen. Thank you.
Hands dropping to his knees, Benny looked up with exaggerated nonchalance. "So. Now that weíve got things into a kinda weird perspective, I guess all we really have to do is figure out what happens now."
The deceptively simple words send a chill racing down his spine. I was right. You came here to say something I donít want to hear. He kept his voice level with an effort. "Do we have to get into that now? I was sleeping, you know."
"Wonít take long," he said, without the flippancy for which Jonathan had hoped. "See, Iíve been doing some thinking and...well, thatís the reason I went looking around for someone to talk to...."
He broke off, too quickly, and ice stabbed Jonathanís heart. You didnít expect to find me.
"You couldnít do it the conventional way?" he said, keeping the growing sickness in his stomach from reflecting in his voice.
"No." Bennyís eyes were bright on him, tense and expectant. "Mostly because Iíve got this decision to make that kinda involves, ah...conventional ways."
I donít want this. I donít want this! "Do you think you might start getting specific sometime before breakfast?"
"Far be it from me to stand between you and your o.j., Jack. Anyway, like I said, I have this decision to make. Iíve been giving a lot of thought to breaking my lease."
You bastard. "Iím a college professor. You need a lawyer for that."
"Nah. For this kind of deal, the advice of a college prof holds just about as much water as any words of wisdom from the mouth of Clarence Darrow. So bear with me a minute, okay? This place Iím in now, well...it was all right for a while. Oh, Iíve had a few complaints, but overall, it was a pretty good deal. But lately...well, itís gotten to the point that I donít think I can trust the landlord anymore. He keeps upping the rent, and heís forfeited my security deposit about six times over, and everythingís still falling apart."
Jonathan tried to speak, but the words snagged in a dry throat. Aware of Bennyís steady gaze on him, he reached for the half-filled plastic tumbler on the nightstand, cursing the tremor that betrayed his understanding of his erstwhile colleagueís too-calm words.
"Anyway," Benny continued when Jonathan remained silent, staring into the depths of the nearly drained cup. "The place just isnít what it used to be, you know? What it really needs is some massive renovations, and I just donít see that itís worth the effort any more."
"I see," he managed faintly, forcing his eyes up. "Have you got a new place in mind?"
"Yeah, sort of. I mean, itíll be sight unseen, but Iíve got a pretty good idea what to expect."
Iíll just bet you do. "And you want me to help you make this decision?"
He opened his mouth, then changed his mind and shrugged diffidently. "Yeah."
Jonathan closed his eyes as he released a long sigh. "No."
"No? What does that mean, no?"
"It means that this...this decision of yours isnít going to be laid at my doorstep." His eyes opened, calm with resolve. "Benny, Iím not going to say go or stay, I canít do that. I canít take even that much responsibility for what you finally decide to do."
Disappointment flared, hidden when Benny averted his face. "Yeah, I suppose so," he said in voice that told Jonathan how much agreement hurt. "Sorry. This was a bad idea. You get some sleep, Jack."
"Wait." The sharp note in his voice nearly cracked his facade, but it was enough to stop Benny halfway to his feet. "Just...wait. Sit down, or...whatever. All Iím saying is that I canít give you an answer. But I can at least try to give you another kind of weird perspectiveóif it will help."
"Yeah," he shrugged, nonchalance unsuccessfully hiding desperation. "Yeah, it probably would. Go for it."
He turned the tumbler around in his hands, focusing on it with the same effort he gave to his thoughts. "They canít touch us any more," he said quietly. "Weíre poison to them. Thereís nothing they can do against us, and they know it."
He shifted, uncomfortable. "You...you canít be sure...."
"Yes." Terse, imperative. "I can. I told you once before that I couldnít make promises, but now I can. Itís over."
Bennyís searching stare turned inward, the fear inside him reflecting in his eyes.
Trust me, just one more time, Benny. Just one more time.
"Iím...." Benedek cleared his throat. "Iím still not sure thereís any point to trying to salvage whatís left. Just the thought of cleaning out the attic is giving me a sick headache."
His laugh died miserably, fading into the silence. "Listen, Jack," he said tiredly. "Thanks, but...I was right, this wasnít such a hot idea coming here."
"No. No, really, I...you were right, I canít hang this one on you. Iíve got to think about this some more."
"Not before Iíve said this." He leaned forward intently. "I want you to think about the two reasons youíre still alive."
"Only two?" Benny said, interested despite himself.
"The first is that youíre a stubborn, mule-headed, selfish bastard."
"Tell me something I donít know," he growled, but Jonathan heard the smile in his voice and managed one of his own.
"And the second reason?" Benny prompted.
"I think thatís pretty obvious, too. A woman loved you enough to sacrifice her own life to protect you."
A change came over Bennyís face, confusion mixed with fear, charged with awe. "I...I donít understand."
"Benny, she warned you. If she hadnít, Harmon would have gotten both of us that day. She protected you from him, and then she gave you the weapon to destroy him."
"No," he protested weakly. "That was just...."
"Coincidence? Fall of the cards? A lucky break?" Jonathan shook his head slowly. "Benny, she didnít have to warn you. She didnít have to do anything except hang on long enough to find someone to help her use the pendantóthe way we used a tie clip. Maybe you could have been the person to help her if Harmon hadnít killed heróI donít know, and it doesnít matter any more. What matters is that she chose the pass the weapon on to you, because she couldnít save you any other way. Benny, she gave you a incredible gift. For pityís sakeódonít waste it."
Benny listened, his facade sloughing away to reveal the lost and frightened soul beneath. Jonathan wanted to reach out with gesture or words, anything to offer some measure of comfort, but his muscles locked, and the words wouldnít come, and he was left in the cold hands of silence, waiting. His part was done, and whether it was too little, too late was no longer a consideration. This was not his moment to speak, even if he could.
At length, Bennyís faint voice broke the thick silence. "She was a far-seer. A clairvoyant. But not a precog, not a... a fortune teller. Maybe thatís why we clicked so wellóI knew better than to expect her to whip out her crystal ball and promise wealth and good fortune. She was at the head of her class in the here and now, but the future was a closed book. At least...thatís the way it was in Chicago. The last interview for my articleóthe last time I saw heróI remember, Iíd packed up my gear and was almost out the door when she stopped me."
He paused, staring down at his clasped hands. Leaning forward, Jonathan waited, unsure whether the man was pulling back or plunging deeper into the memory. He sighed in quiet relief when Benny resumed, his voice still soft but steady. "She said something I thought I understood, but now...now Iím not so sure. She said that a human life burned like a fire. In some people, itís a steady flame; in others, a raging blaze. Nothing was immutable, nothing was certain except that life was light and warmth struggling to survive in a hostile environment. Left untended and alone, the fire would die. It had to be shared, stoked, and revived so that it could in turn share, stoke and revive. And it was true. No one could have looked into her eyes, seen the light burning there and not believed that every word she said was true. What did I do? I smiled, made some remark or another and thought I had another quote for the article. Just before I left, though, she said that I would have to make a decision someday. Whether to burn myself out in one huge blast, or steady out into a flame that would give its light for a long time to come. And then she smiled as though it were all a joke and said she hoped I made the right decision."
Jonathan waited until the voice faded back into the pensive silence before saying softly, "And have you?"
He started to say something, stopped, then sighed as he shrugged uncertainly. "I...I dunno," he murmured wearily. "I, uh...I think Iíll float back now. Iíve got some heavy brainwork to do, and you need a mega-dose of beauty sleep. See you in the funny papers."
"Wait." He sat up straight, shaking with the unexpected strain on his muscles. "What...I mean, have you decided anything? About...about the lease, that is?"
"Oh..." Benny exaggerated a shrug. "I donít know. Tell you what. Give me a buzz in the morningóafter youíve broken your fast, say. I should have made a decision by then." He rose, turning back mid-step. "Do me a favor, okay? If thereís nobody home when you drop byópull the blinds."
The knot in his stomach exploded. With a hoarse cry, he hurled the tumbler at the place Benny had been standing only a moment before. Rebounding with a crack against the wall, the cup rolled limply to a halt by the empty chair.
Jonathan stared at it until the blood ceased to pound in his ears and his chest. Closing his eyes, he fell back, trying to close out the ache in his soul. You bastard. You bastard. The cry echoed softly, curse and desperate plea, until welcome darkness claimed him both body and mind.
He awoke to sunlight streaming across his face and stared at the ceiling as pieces of a startling dream spun lazily, coalescing with maddening slowness. Dream. Dream? Was it...a dream?
His mind puzzled even as his body acted, yanking back the covers to slide out of bed. Three days of intensive physical therapy brought tears of pain to his eyes, but the muscles worked, held him up, let him take awkward steps, and that was all that mattered. He hesitated with his hand was on the doorknob. What if it was only a dream?
Glancing back, he saw an empty plastic tumbler lying on the floor near the armchair.
What if it wasnít?
Charming his way past the ward nurse with ease, Jonathan made his unsteady way to the infirmary, still fighting the battle in his mind. Pausing to catch his breath, he leaned against the corridor wall and rubbed at the throbbing ache in his head. Damn you, Benedek. It was supposed to be over. Why did you do this to me? I never had you pegged for taking the easy way out.
The ache in his muscles subsided a little, and he drew in a steeling breath, pushing away from the wall to continue on. Maybe you lied to me. Maybe youíd already decided to jump ship and that was only your perverse way of saying goodbye. Did you think you were doing the kind thing? Or did you think at all? Is this how six months in hell is supposed to end for either of us?
He inhaled sharply, consciously willing his anger to drain away. Donít think like that. Donít do this to yourself, MacKensie, you canít spare the energy. Youíre going to need everything youíve got to deal with...with whateverís waiting for you in the infirmary.
The nurse at the station outside the infirmary was not as easily charmed as his ward nurse. It took ten minutes and all his persuasive talents to get her to page Dr. Edwards.
When the psychiatrist arrived, accompanied by Dr. Moorhouse, Jonathanís attempt to get the manís permission to enter the infirmary met with less success than his entreaties to the head nurse.
"Dr. Edwards, please." He inhaled deeply, trying not to appear as agitated as he felt. "Iím not trying to be difficult."
"I understand that. All Iím saying is that I donít believe that this is a very good idea."
Defeated, Jonathan turned to the woman standing next to them, who had so far listened to their ongoing argument in silence. "Dr. Moorhouse...."
"Iím sorry," she said quietly, responding to his plea. "I agree with Dr. Edwards. Itís not a good idea."
Exasperated, Jonathan lifted his hands beseechingly. "Look, youíve let me see him before, why is this different?"
"Why is it so important to you to see him now?" Dr. Edwards asked.
He sighed, running a hand through his hair as agitation threatened to get the better of him. "I told you, I canít really explain why, I just...please. Could you ask the nurse to buzz me in?"
The manís lips pursed, the answer in his regretful expression. "Iím sorry. Itís...."
"...not a good idea," he finished angrily. "Why? Why isnít a good idea? The nurse told us that his condition is unchanged, what difference does it make to him?"
"Jonathan." Dr. Moorhouse placed a restraining hand on his arm. "We werenít talking about him."
He stared at the worried light in her eyes, remembering her long vigil over him as heíd struggled free of black depression following the first and last time heíd been allowed to visit the infirmary, two days ago. "Iím sorry," he murmured, putting his hand over hers. "Itís just that...this is important to me. Please. I canít explain it any more than that...please."
Something about the quiet desperation in Jonathanís voice stopped Dr. Edwardís refusal mid-word. With a terse nod, he turned to consult the head nurse.
"Are you very sure about this?" Dr. Moorhouse asked softly.
"Pleaseódonít worry. I know what to expect this time."
It may hurt like hellóbut at least it wonít be a surprise.
With a gesture to follow, the psychiatrist led them into the infirmary, holding back the curtain surrounding Bennyís bed for Dr. Moorhouse and Jonathan to enter.
Everything was the same. Even the light diffused through the half-closed blinds seemed to strike at the same angle across the hospital bed, faintly defining its occupant. His heart sank. What did I expect? Or rather...what did I hope to expect? Benny sitting up in bed making bow-knots in his I.V. tubes and lewd suggestions to the nurses?
He moved closer, uncertain how to proceed. Dr. Moorhouse moved with him, ready to brace him if he reached for her as he had two days ago. He faltered, almost turning to her. I canít do this. I canít.
Drawing a shaky breath, he gathered the courage to move to the side of the bed. He stared down at the shadowed face, deceptively composed and serene.
Dr. Edwards moved silently to the opposite side of the bed, and without looking up Jonathan realized that he was being closely observed. Come on, Benny. Donít disappoint your audience. Come out and take a bow. Please.
Mindful of the trailing I.V. tube, he tentatively touched Bennyís hand. Knock, knock. Anybody home?
The coolness of the manís skin panicked him, but as he retracted his hand to make a quick check of a pulse point, Bennyís fingers twitched. Freezing, Jonathan watched as the spasm repeated, twice, three times. Involuntary? Or....
Jonathan pressed his palm to Bennyís, and nearly burst out laughing when the manís fingers slowly curled around his hand.
Benny stirred, his eyes struggling open to focus on the two stunned and one grinning face above him. Sorting Jonathan out, he cracked a tired smile. "Hey, Jack," he rasped, barely more than a dry croak. "Nice of you to stop by."
"Couldnít refuse the invitation," he smiled, ignoring the quaver threatening his voice. "I see youíve decided to stay put."
"Yeah." He closed his eyes with a contented sigh. "Iíve gotten kind of attached to the neighborhood."
"Mr. Benedek," Dr. Edwards said, voice shrill with astonishment. "Welcome back."
"Thanks for having me back," he greeted the man rustily. "Howím I doing?"
"Much better," the man replied with a small laugh for having to state the obvious. "How do you feel?"
"Lousy. How much better does it get?"
"I think you would need to discuss that with the doctor on call. If youíll excuse me, Iíll have the nurse page himó Iím sure heíll want to do a thorough examination."
"Iíll be here," Benny attempted a laugh that the psychiatrist acknowledged with a nod. He gave Jonathan a brief but searching look before turning to leave the curtained cubicle.
"So," Benny said, grimacing as he tried get his voice to function properly. "Tell me the truthóI knocked his socks off again, didnít I?"
"A true talent," Jonathan nodded, grinning like an idiot and not caring a bit.
"Hey." Benny focused on the woman who had taken Dr. Edwardsí place on the other side of the bed. "Hi, Momó Iím home. Whatís to eat?"
She smiled, her hand closing over the one he lifted as far as his second I.V. line would permit. "No fair, Jack," Benny chided mildly. "You didnít tell me my favorite lady was still in town."
"Next time, stick around for the late news," Jonathan suggested meaningfully.
"Forget next time," Benny said, closing his eyes as he tightened his grip on their hands. "I decided to keep the home fires burning. Pulled the listing. No vacancies here." Cracking open one eye, he gave Jonathan a crooked smile. "You were rightóyou bastard."
For just a moment, the ache in his bones disappeared in a warm flood of relief. "Thanks for trusting me," he said softly.
His smile grew, content. "Thanks for being there, Jack."
The physician on call arrived, too soon, and politely ushered them out despite Bennyís reluctance to release their hands. Only the promise to return as soon as the doctorís examination was completed mollified any of them, and it still took a quiet gesture from Dr. Moorhouse to persuade Jonathan to leave the infirmary at all.
"You havenít eaten breakfast," she chided as he lingered at the doorway. "Donít bother denying it. Come on. Heíll still be here when we get back."
"Yes," he murmured, his smile threatening to become a silly grin. "He will, wonít he?"
She took his arm, and with one more glance back, he sighed and let her lead him away. As they walked, her arm slipped through his. He grasped her hand, feeling for the first time that she no longer offered support, only simple comradeship. She pressed against him without apology or self-consciousness and he accepted it without embarrassment.
"Iíll have to call Liz," Dr. Moorhouse spoke, thinking aloud. "And Randyóor Liz will call her. And Angela, and, oh, yesóI mustnít forget Jordy...."
"Jordy?" he echoed, amused by her off-hand familiarity with Bennyís editor.
She faltered, caught. "Why...yes, of course. We...weíve been in almost constant contact since this whole thing began. Heís been an enormous help. He...we...ah...."
"Yes, I see," he replied mock-seriously, rescuing her from a totally uncharacteristic attack of embarrassment. Another miracleóI could swear sheís blushing.
Re-mustering her composure, she said, "Itís a shame that Benedek will have to spend the holidays here."
"At least he wonít be alone." He gave her a long look with the rest of his message. Iím staying here for as long as it takes him to get back on his feet.
He read her reply in the look she gave him, and smiled in delight. Youíre staying, too.
Firming her grip on his arm, she made a decisive sound. "Perhaps we could make some special plans, pending Dr. Edwardsí approval, of course. Is there anything in particular that you wanted for Christmas, by the way?"
Asked off-handedly, he couldnít be sure whether she was completely aware of what sheíd said or merely carried away by the moment, but her words froze him in his tracks. Brought up short by his abrupt halt, she stared at him with a flash of fear for the odd look sweeping his face. "Jonathan? Are you...?"
Her words cut off in a yelp, smothered by the massive bearhug into which he gathered her. He felt her arms tighten around him, and for a glorious moment nothing else existed for him. Their souls, two waning fires, seemed to touch, leaping across a cold chasm to entwine and flare up to illuminate the darkness. By the brief, fierce light he saw walls heíd not even known were there, walls that crumbled and fell into the conflagration, freeing him.
The past was dust, inconsequential memories, images and voices, nothing more. The only thing that mattered was here, this moment. The only sensation he wanted to feel was the warmth of her arms around him, holding, embracing, protecting, giving. The only sound he wanted to hear was her voice, like crystal bells on a gentle breeze, saying over and over again, "Itís all right. Itís over now. Itís over."
He tried to speak, but the only sound he could make was a laugh choked by tears of joy, and so he laughed, pressing her against him until her own tearful laugh became a gasp for breath. But when he tried to release her, she resisted, gripping his arms as if she intended never to let go again.
They regarded each other through tear-blurred eyes, and burst out laughing as two startled nurses slid by them. "Weíre making a spectacle out of ourselves," Dr. Moorhouse said, wiping at her wet face.
He opened his mouth, and closed it again. There was only one way he could express the emotion inside him, and so he embraced her again, not as fiercely, but with everything he had. She relaxed into it without hesitation, and for a time they stood silently, unmoving. Their fires burned, steady and bright, and in the quiet solitude of his mind, finally at peace, he fancied he saw her, hair of flame and eyes of crystal blue, just as Benedek remembered her. A vision, only a wisp of memory, but she was there, and she was smiling. She, too, was finally at peace.
"Okay." Jordan Kerner resettled himself on the ludicrously small chair, and squinted down at the steno pad in his hand. "Lemme see if I got this straight. You and Benny went to the Whitewood Sanitarium to do a follow-up on that Cooper story, you got mixed up in this, ah...insurance fraud thingóis that right? Sure you donít want to make it a religious cult or something?"
Before Jonathan could answer, Jordy held up a hand. "Sorry, I forgot. We gotta stick to what you already told the police and the FBI guys. Okay, insurance scam." He shook his head, making a note on the pad as he muttered, "Sheesh. No imagination."
Jonathan took advantage of Kernerís pause to take another look around the dayroom. Doctor, nurses, and trustee patients alike were gathered in groups around the re-decorated room, all in animated conversation, all awaiting the tolling of midnight and the coming of the New Year. Heíd started the evening with a harem: Randy, Liz, Angela, Dr. Moorhouse, and several of the Whitewoodís nursing staff kept him amply supplied with fruit punch and companionship. Over the course of the evening, he had lost them all, and not unwillinglyóheíd been trying to get this private interview with Jordy for three days now, and by sending his retinue off to rejoin the party, it appeared heíd made several doctors, orderlies and male nurses very happy. He caught a glimpse of Liz, in intimate conversation with a young intern. Randy, by the hors díoeuvres table, was being plied with petit fours by three very attentive young gentlemen; Angela held the floor on the other side of the room, telling anecdotes of some of her more hair-raising exorcism exploits and demonstrating pre-aerobic muscle stretching to a fascinated mixed group. His nurses had undoubtedly attached themselves to the group gathered on the other corner of the room, blocked from his immediate line of vision, where Benny had been holding court for hours.
Jordyís sharp sigh drew his attention back. "Okay, you got too close to this scam and this Brophy dame decided you guys were a liability and had you snatched. Then we get into all that stuff about the, uh...the drugs." He squinted again at the paper, a strange look in his eyes as he muttered almost inaudibly, "Geez." After a moment, he looked up, resuming his normal voice. "This guy Danny, he shows up in time to keep this dame from offing you and Benny, sets the fire in the kitchen to get help, lets the police in, and then rides off into the sunset. And as far as the police are concerned, this other guy, the stiffówhatís his name? Brian? He keeled over from a brain aneurysm, they canít even pin it on a drug reaction, so it gets put down to weird bad luck? And the dame gets clean away, not a trace? Gotta tell you, pal, this is really bizarre. Nobodyís gonna buy it."
"Depends on whoís selling it," Jonathan told him with an amused smile.
"Youíre right," Jordy nodded confidently. "If anyone can put this piece of fiction over on John Q. Public, the National Register can. Donít sweat it, kid, youíre gonna be a hero, count on it." His face changed abruptly, losing its cheerful facade. "Between you and me, thoughówhat do you think happened to this Danny guy? I mean...hey, I think Iíd really like to shake his hand, you know?"
"I wish I knew, Jordy. I really wish I knew."
"Yeah." Jordy sighed. "Well, itís not as if we could pin a medal on him. At least we can try to get the police off his back, right? Theyíre not still looking for him, are they?"
"For questioning, maybe. I believe Dr. Moorhouse persuaded the local authorities to drop the arson charges."
A strange look came into Jordyís eyes, and seeing it, Jonathan leaned forward in interest. "Now that I wouldnít doubt," the man said with a lopsided smile. "By the way, did I tell you? Did I tell you how she and that exorcist friend of yours figured out to check all the hospitals in a five state area, and then when she thought theyíd finally tracked you down, how she camped out and wouldnít budge an inch?"
"You told me, Jordy," Jonathan assured him for the fourth time, suppressing smile of amused suspicion. "I agreeó sheís a special woman."
"I didnít sayó" He stopped, caught. "Oh, wellóyeah, I guess thatís what Iíve been saying. Wellóshe is. Special. You know?"
"I know," he agreed softly.
"Yeah. Yeah." Nodding tersely, he appeared to be giving deep consideration to something. "Special," he murmured, turning his head to scan the crowded room. "Speaking of which, you donít see her anywhere, do you? I, uh...I think Iíd like to get a couple of...." He gestured weakly. "Comments. A couple of comments."
"The last time I saw her was over by the buffet table with Dr. Edwards and Police Chief Lester," Jonathan said, watching for a reaction.
Jordy didnít fail him, searching the room a little more frantically. "Yeah? Hm. Well, look, you take care of yourself, okay? Catch you later. Oh, yeah, thanks for the help. And donít worryówhat doesnít fit, weíll make fitóthatís our motto."
He backed away as he spoke, his last words lost as he plunged into the crowd, headed for the buffet table. Chuckling, Jonathan pushed off the sofa, getting as far as the punch table before a hand grasped his, pulling him to a stop. Expecting to see Randy or Liz, he found himself staring into Terriís dark brown eyes.
Leaning heavily against one wooden crutch, she regarded him apprehensively, her grip on his hand loosening just enough to allow him to pull free if he chose to do so. And for a moment, he thought he might. But even his reflexes were under control now. The eyes that looked at him were not filled with the promise of death and despair, but with despair of their own, and he responded to it by shifting her hand in his, grasping it more tightly.
Her smile trembled, bringing light to her troubled eyes, and he realized that she had come here looking for him. She would have needed Dr. Edwardsí permission to leave the ward that had been set up to receive the Lincoln County evacuees. Which meant that she could communicate, and that meant that her recovery was well underway. That realization warmed him even as he said, "Hello, Terri."
"Theresa," she corrected him hastily. "Please...Theresa."
"Iím sorry. Theresa."
"No." She shook her head tersely, almost embarrassed. "Iím...Iím sorry."
"Donít." Pausing, he regained enough composure to continue, "Donít apologize. For anything." He lifted a finger, making sure she recognized the emphasis he put into his words. "Promise me."
She shook her head helplessly, going still when he tugged gently on her hand. "Promise me," he repeated firmly. "No apologiesóever. Donít ever give the memory even that much of you. Trust me."
She stared at him, dark eyes mirroring confusion and doubt, fear and pain. He in turned silently offered her calm, and she took it with a sigh and a smile of gratitude. Glancing down at the bright corsage pinned to her shoulder, another smile, softer and brighter lit her face, vanishing as she drew up to place a soft kiss on his cheek. "Thank you," she whispered as she released his hand, maneuvering unsteadily on the single crutch. "Thank you."
"Hi." One of his ward nurses blocked his attempt to go after Theresa, distracting him with an industrial-strength come-on smile. "Youíre finished with the interview, I hope? Weíve missed you."
He let himself go with the rush, feeling some of his old confidence pull up a charming smile. "I was just on my way to the punch bowl. Would you care to join me?"
"Oh, yes, thank you." Her smile widened as her eyes narrowed. "Iím quite thirsty."
Now thatís promising. She moved with him as he elbowed his way to the bowl. Fumbling small cups and slippery ladle, he remarked, "Donít tell me Benedekís run out of stories and magic tricks so soon?"
"Oh, no." Her laughter held the familiar note of one utterly charmed by Edgar Benedekís trademark joie de vivre. "Heís knocked back a couple of gallons of this stuff, so heís probably off paying the piper."
He paused, liquid threatening to spill over the sides of the cup. "Probably? You donít...heís not here?"
"I havenít seen him for a while, not since he excused himself," she shrugged, unconcerned.
"How long ago was that?"
She pulled a pout. "Does it really matter?" she purred.
He shoved the cup into her hand, ignoring her startled yelp. Without apology, he plowed through the crowd, headed for the corner where he had last seen Benny, at that time surrounded by a rapt audience. The armchair was now occupied by Wick. Amelia, seated on the armrest, laughed coquettishly as she teased him with her silk scarf. She gave Jonathan a miffed look as he put his hand on Wickís shoulder, drawing the young manís attention away from her.
"Have you seen Benny?" Jonathan asked him as calmly as he could manage.
"I, uh, think he had some business to take care of," Wick shrugged, with a nod of his head for the rest of his meaning.
"How long ago was that?"
He shifted his arm from its comfortable resting place around Ameliaís waist to check his watch. His face changed. "Thatís a long couple of minutes," he muttered with a frown. "Maybe Iíd better...."
Jonathan waved him back, much to Ameliaís obvious relief. "No, Iíll fetch him. Thanks."
Making his way to the door through the crowd, he paused to catch his breath. And stopped breathing altogether to see an empty wheelchair discarded a few feet up the corridor.
All feeling left him in a rush, even as the logical part of his mind protested. Thereís a reason for this. A good reason. Thereíd better be a reason, and it had better be good.
Like a desperate litany, the words ran through his mind as he half walked, half ran down the hallways to his room.
The door was opened a crack, and from inside came the soft sounds of the TV. He paused, listening until he recognized the vibrant strains of one of Bennyís favorite classic cartoons. Hand on the door, he leaned in cautiously. "Benedek?"
"Yo," came the ready reply. "Whatís up, Jack? The third floor nursing staff send you to round me up?"
Benny sat up comfortably on his bed, the VCR control in one hand, while his other arm cradled his head. He looked up as Jonathan entered and closed the door behind him. "Just in time. ĎThe Scarlet Pumpernickelí is up nextóyour personal favorite."
"Benedek, what are you doing here?" The irritation in his voice covered the wave of relief that left him weak-kneed, able to do no more than make it to his own bed and ease down. "Why did you leave the wheelchair behind? And why didnít you tell anyone where you were going?"
"So now I need a note from Mom to go to the can?" Benny snorted, scanning the VCR image with more interest than he apparently gave the conversation. "Ease up, Jack. Besides, mummy had her hands full fielding passes. Wouldnít do to spoil her fun, would it?"
"If youíre not going to answer my question, just say so." Flopping down full length on his bed, he rubbed at his aching head.
"Watch this part," Benny crowed, pointing to the screen. "This is where Daffy tries to rescue the fair damsel and...."
"I know," he growled from beneath his hand. "Youíve only forced me to watch it three dozen times since Wick gave it to you for Christmas."
"Yeah, great stuff, isnít it?" he said amiably. "Thatís the way it goes with a vintageójust canít get enough of a good thing."
"Why did you leave the party?"
He opened his mouth, closed it, sighed, then paused the picture. "Tell me again that things are back to normal."
An embarrassed flush crept into his face. "All right, Iím sorry. I didnít mean to make it sound like...like...."
"Like you were worried about me. I know, I know." Shaking his head, he studied the remote control in his hand. "You said that they couldnít touch us any more, Jack. You insisted. Now Iím getting mixed signals. Whatís the scoop?"
He inclined his head. "Were you testing me?"
"Dunno. Maybe. Maybe not."
"Present and accounted for. Answer the question, okay?"
He swallowed enough of his irritation to answer coherently. "All right, I admit that I was worried. But not about... not about them."
"Ah." Benny nodded reflectively. "Okay. Then that means you thought maybe I was rethinking my decision to, ah ...sublet."
His flush burned hotter. "I, uh...I suppose so. Iím soró"
"No," he laughed suddenly. "No, forget the apologies, okay? Iím kinda flattered, actually. Hate to think youíre taking me for granted."
"Heaven forbid," Jonathan muttered, smiling at the genuine note of amusement in Benedekís voice.
"So weíll call it even, okay?"
"Yeah. Weíll say we were allowed one major lapse of trust each. Agreed?"
"Okay," he nodded, more than happy to have Benny shrug off his own lack of good faith so easily. "Even."
"Howíd it go with Jordy?"
Feeling better, Jonathan rearranged the pillow under his neck, settling out more comfortably. "By this time next week, weíll be in supermarkets all across America."
"Arm in arm with the meat and potatoes," Benedek chuckled, starting the tape again. "Has he figured out a way to explain how a hack and a college prof got mixed up in a medical insurance scam?"
"He assures me heíll think of something," Jonathan replied, pretending interest in a cartoon he knew by heart. "You do trust him, donít you?"
"Ow. Watch how you rub the salt in, willya?"
"Does the therapist know that youíre littering the hallways with your wheelchair?"
"Figured to surprise her next session. Only fell on my nose twiceópretty good, huh?"
Benny spared him a mildly curious look before focusing back on the cartoon. "Depends on what?"
"On what youíre trying to proveóand to whom."
The image on the TV screen flicked off. Setting the remote down, Benny shook his head. "Canít get anything past you tonight, can I?"
"Bennyówhy did you leave the party?"
"Come on, ease up, willya? Does it really matter?"
"So tell me about the last time you spent New Yearís Eve sitting up in bed watching old cartoons."
"Okay, okay. Point taken." He settled back against the headboard, arms folded across his chest. "I was doing pretty well there for a while, you know."
"I know. Every nurse on staff wants to be next to you at midnight. What happened?"
"Well, I got to thinking. I mean, what is time, anyway? Some guy in a toga sat down and decided that so much makes a second and sixty of those make a minute and this many days is a year, etc., whatever. And because of him, once every 365.2 days, we get smashed and yell and scream like brainless idiots and kiss pretty girls. Itís like he drew this invisible line and said ĎOkay, people, this is your benchmark. Forget whatís behind you; it canít be changed. Just stare at whatís in front of youóa big blank gray wall that canít be touched.í"
He paused, studying the fingers of one hand. "In fifteen minutes, weíll be standing on that line again. Maybe Mr. Toga did us a favoróI dunno. What he gave us is really nothing more than a symbolic beginning. But...itís still a beginning."
"Which implies an ending," Jonathan added quietly.
"Oh, yeah," he agreed with a sigh. "And nobodyís going to be happier than me to watch this year chug off into the distanceóI just wish I could be sure that no part of it is going to follow me over the line."
"We agreed," he warned.
"Nah, trust has nothing to do with it this time. Iím talking about my own excess baggageóyíknow? You and me, we both know that the worst mistake we can make is to pretend nothing happened. But how much do we take with us?"
Jonathan propped himself up on his elbow. "Iím not sure I follow."
Benny gave him an odd look. "The transferees from Lannerton show up next week. Theyíre going to ask you to identify the John and the Jane Does, like you did with the Lincoln County group."
"I know," he said, but not with as much strength as he would have liked.
"So what happens if you run into whatís left of Billy, say?"
"Iíll tell Dr. Edwards what I think happened to him," Jonathan replied readily. "And hope that he can be helpedó like the others."
Accepting with a slow nod, he spoke after a pensive silence. "And what about those windmills of yours? Still planning to tilt at them?"
His decision took a few moments. "No," he said at length.
The casual note in Bennyís voice alerted him that the man was leading up to something, and that intrigued him enough to proceed cautiously.
"Because I donít think we have to do anything any more."
"Right," Benny nodded. "The domino effect."
A smile curled on his face. "So you were listening last night."
"Donít sound so surprised. Just because I suggested that you and Jordy perform some anatomically peculiar stunts doesnít mean I wasnít paying attention. So you get one I-told-you-so. The domino theory actually makes sense, in its own way."
"And our other suggestion? Does that make sense yet?"
He shifted uncomfortably. "I donít write fiction," he grumbled.
Stifling his first impulse, he replied firmly, "Youíll be telling the truth, with all the names changed."
"And have Stephen King sweating bullets, right?" He sighed. "I dunno."
"Benny, it may take a long time for the last domino to fall."
"Now, waitóyour point is that if I write this book, we can warn people that this thing exists, and maybe that way keep it from happening to them. But if I publish the story as fiction, whoís gonna believe it?"
"Whatís the basis of good storytelling?" Jonathan challenged. "Selling the ideas as though they could be true, making your readers believe what youíre telling them. Done properly, you could convince them that this thing could exist. Thatís all it would take."
"You really think thatíll be enough?" Benny asked, his voice faint with doubt.
"I know so," Jonathan told him, letting confidence color his tone. "So? What do you say?"
"That depends on what you have to say."
"What do you mean?"
"Think about it, Jonny. Youíre half the book." He regarded him a long moment. "Can you do it? Can you handle me asking you the questions Iíll need answered? Will you be able to face this thing in cold print? Thisíll be the hard truth, nowónot Jordyís pretty little whitewash."
"Yes," he replied without hesitation. "If you can write it, I can handle it."
Benny nodded, staring down at his feet. "Well?" Jonathan prompted quietly.
"That was a hell of a dare, you bastard," he growled, but Jonathan relaxed to hear the light note in his voice. "Okay, you got me. I can at least give it a try. Now, if I can get Dr. Edwards to spring me next week...."
Jonathanís heart leapt, and it was a struggle to stifle the smile threatening to give him away even as he said, "Next week? Leaving so soon?"
"Cut the act, Jocko. I happen to know for a fact that you could have blown this joint ten days ago if youíd wanted to." Bennyís voice was still a growl, but the glance he sent Jonathanís way twinkled with amusement. "And donít get any strange ideas about me appreciating the subterfuge, either." He returned to the close study of his feet, and Jonathan barely caught his muttered, "Even if it happens to be the truth...."
This time he let the grin burst out, lying back with his arms propped beneath his head. "Youíve still got seven minutes left to make at least one nurse very happy. How about heading back?"
Benny retrieved the remote, flicking on the TV and rewinding the tape in the VCR. "I, uh...I wasnít quite straight with you, Jack. There was a reason I left the party, and it wasnít to get a rise out of you, either. Iíve been doing a lot of thinking since yesterday, about that domino theory of yours. Lady Carmen to me, me to you, and then...to where?"
Intrigued by the curious note in the manís quiet voice, Jonathan lifted himself up again. Benny continued, scanning the tape as he spoke. "Okay, I can accept that this...this situation with the venues is falling apart, and I think youíre right about how it started. It makes senseóHarmon made the first mistake by killing Lady Carmen. That was the first touch of rot. If things started going wrong for him after that, then thatís the reason he finally let me catch up. He thought it had something to do with me, and maybe he thought he could deal with his problem by dealing with me. And thereís no question Brophy thought the same thing, with more reasonóthatís why she went after us. So I guess that what it all adds up to is...youíre right. Lady Carmen was the first domino. Harmon couldnít stop the fall; Brophy couldnít stop it, either. We may have been the focal point once, but itís finally caught and passed us up. Iím willing to accept that the process is unstoppable, like you said. And for that alone...maybe I could even get around to thinking that everything thatís happened to us may have actually been worth it."
Jonathan considered the manís quiet soliloquy in silence, finally asking, "What brought this on?"
He smiled tautly. "Sharp as a tack tonight, arenít we, boyo? Okay, Iíll give. I had the TV on while you were in the shower getting ready for the party. Caught an item on the six oíclock news. It went by too fast for me to fetch you, and I wasnít really sure it meant anything. I left the party to check out the late news report."
"And?" Jonathan prompted when Bennyís attention went back to the VCR remote.
"Give me a sec. I taped it."
Jonathan sat up, blinking in open surprise. The implication was that whatever this news item had been, Benny considered it important enough to casually sacrifice "Duck Dodgers".
He focused on the screen image. The anchorwoman was calmly reporting a destructive explosion and fire somewhere in the Midwest. The remote followed, choppy scenes of flames and smoke, running people and crowds of safely restrained rubberneckers.
Jonathan leaned forward as the remote correspondent remarked on the suspicious origins of the fire, which had destroyed a shelter for the homeless and indigent. He made special note of the fact that police and firemen had rescued a number of residents who appeared to have sustained no physical injury, but who, without exception, seemed to be suffering from severe psychological trauma. Other unspecified evidence uncovered in the aftermath were prompting questions as to whether the ostensibly beneficent organization had been a cover for an unsuspected Satanic cult.
Jonathan glanced over at Benny, but when he started to speak, the other man shushed him, pointing at the screen. Heíd frozen the image on a camera pan of bystanders.
Stiffening, MacKensie clutched at the bed covers for support. Out of several dozen people, one young man in particular drew his eye like a magnet. The casual clothes were almost a mask, but not enough to fool him. Even at three-quarter profile, he recognized the thin face, the watchful eyes, the tousled, brownish hair.
"Friend of yours?" Benny suggested quietly.
The picture jumped, moving forward again. Before the camera cut to another reaction shot, he glimpsed the young man smilingósupremely satisfied.
And he flashed on a brightly colored corsage and the smile of the woman wearing it. "Heís all right," Jonathan said, a relieved whisper to himself. "Thank god. Heís all right."
Benny snorted mildly. "All right? Hell, Iíd say heís more than all right, wouldnít you?"
"Wait a minute. How did you know it was him?"
"Gimme a break, J.J. How could I have not known it was him?"
He looked back at the screen, seeing not the resumed cartoon, but the memory of that brief glimpse. Warmth filled him, reflected in his glowing smile. "So thatís what all this rampant enigma has been about," he mocked a grumble.
"Your boy done good," Benny said quietly, arching an eyebrow. "And if heís gotten the hang of this thing as fast as it looks like he hasóhe should be able to retire himself in another week or so." He smiled wryly, adding, "Make room for the next domino, anyway."
Jonathan nodded agreement, realizing only then that Theresaís corsage had been sent as a symbol of a promiseóin more ways than one.
"You know, I think this calls for a toast," Benny announced, leaning over the far edge of the bed. Jonathan, puzzled, watched as the man produced stacked paper cups and a bottle of champagne.
"Where did you get that?" he asked, genuinely astonished.
He flipped the cups up for inspection. "Swiped them from the party."
"I meant the champagne," he growled.
"Ah," he said with a twinkle. "Had Wick smuggle it in for me. Canít do New Yearís Eve properly on watered-down fruit punch."
Jonathan glanced at the VCRís LED display; three minutes to midnight. "Look, maybe we should get back to the party now...."
Struggling to open the bottle, Benny shook his head. "Theyíve all got their own lines to cross, Jocko. Weíve got ours."
It took him a moment to identify the feeling his friendís quiet words provoked. After all was said and done, Benny was right. This was one line that had to be crossed carefully; there were no second chances, no turning back.
"By the way." Benny measured out a healthy share into one of the cups. "With all this running around and tsk-tsking youíve been doing in my faceódid you happen to let anyone know where you were going?"
"I spoke to Wick...." He trailed off, remembering how heíd left matters with the young man. "Ah...hm."
"Yeah," Benny nodded, amused. "So I figure weíve got maybe five minutes before they stop yelling and screaming and start looking for us." He swung his legs over the side of his bed, reaching over to hand one of the filled cups to Jonathan. "You first. Make it a good one."
"Okay." He paused, thinking. "To good friends."
"The best," Benny agreed heartily.
"Your turn," Jonathan managed, sniffling back the tingling aftereffects of his first sip.
"To dominoes," he said without hesitation.
Jonathan smiled, almost a laugh. "Cheers."
They savored their second taste, and for a moment there was silence as each stared into the depths of their cup. From a distance, they heard a tumult; laughter and singing and gleeful shouts. Benny looked up with a smile, turning his ear toward the joyful noise with a wistful light glowing in his eyes.
"Happy New Year, Jack."
He smiled, realizing the line had been crossed without doubt, without qualm, and most importantly, without fear. "Happy New Year, Benny," he replied, his voice warm with welcome.
"Iíd like to propose one more toast," Benny decided, raising his cup. "To the person who made this moment possible."
Jonathan touched his cup to Bennyís, and nodded with a soft smile. "To Lady Carmen."
© M.D. Bloemker. The contents of this page may not be copied or reproduced without the author's express written permission.
Return to Fiction top page
Return to Shadow Chasers Home Page
Return to MaryB's Home Page